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Former Laotian Military General Denied Bail
Vang Pao AP
Hmong from across California and several other states packed the courtroom and filled a courthouse plaza and surrounding sidewalks for Vang Pao's detention hearing.
(AP) SACRAMENTO Hundreds of supporters of Hmong leader Vang Pao demonstrated outside the federal courthouse Monday as a magistrate refused to release the former Laotian general on bail while he awaits trial on charges of trying to overthrow Laos' communist government.

Despite his age and deteriorating health, Vang Pao, 77, is too dangerous and too great a flight risk to be freed under any circumstances, U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund Brennan ruled after a 30-minute hearing.

Vang Pao and eight other Hmong elders were arrested June 4 on charges that they tried to buy nearly $10 million worth of military weapons and recruit mercenaries to unseat Laos's communist government.

A 10th defendant, retired California National Guard Lt. Col. Harrison Jack, is also charged in the case, accused of trying to arrange the coup through an arms broker who turned out to be an undercover federal agent.

Hmong from across California and several other states packed the courtroom and filled a courthouse plaza and surrounding sidewalks for Vang Pao's detention hearing.

Most of the Hmong were dressed in white to show their peacefulness and purity, said Ka Va, who helped organize the rally.

They waved American flags, giant portraits of Vang Pao, and signs calling for the release of the Vietnam War era general whose guerrillas rescued downed American pilots and waged an ultimately futile covert war orchestrated by the CIA.

"This is how much this man is loved," said Thomas Heffelfinger, one of Vang Pao's attorneys, said over the noise of the crowd. "This reflects the general's commitment to a peaceful agenda."

Heffelfinger, a former federal prosecutor from Minnesota, said he was hired by Vang Pao's supporters to assist John Balazs, the Sacramento attorney who was appointed by the court to represent the general last week.

Heffelfinger said Vang Pao is innocent of the charges, which could bring him life in prison if he's convicted.

The show of support by a crowd estimated at 500 to 1,000 Hmong by court security officials may have backfired, however.

Balazs argued that Vang Pao could safely be released to home confinement with a virtual communications blackout: No phones, computers or other communications devices.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Twiss told Brennan that Vang Pao's influence is so sweeping and unquestioned that he could organize his followers no matter what restrictions are imposed, perhaps sending messages through intermediaries or with a smuggled cell phone.

"Thousands of people came here on the day of his detention hearing," Twiss said in an interview. "If General Vang Pao were to pick up a cell phone, is there any doubt they wouldn't execute his order? To me, it (the rally) was an indication of his ability to effectuate action indirectly."

Vang Pao has foresworn violence and lobbied peacefully for the United States to protect Hmong still being persecuted in Laos, said Heffelfinger. Moreover, the general has had heart bypass and gallbladder surgery, a stroke, and suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, he said.

"The mere fact that he has loyal followers does not make him dangerous," Heffelfinger said outside the courthouse. "The general is a man of peace."

Brennan nonetheless ordered Vang Pao detained. He also ordered the detention of two alleged coconspirators, Lo Thao and Nhia Vang, after brief separate hearings.

The general sat silently hunched over a table during the hearing, wearing a bright orange jail jumpsuit and listening through an interpreter.

Outside supporters waved signs reading, "Honor your war heroes -- don't jail them," and "Free our leader."

"He is like a supreme leader to all of us," said Silas Cha of Fresno, a leader of Hmong-American Concerned Citizens, an organization he said stretches from Sacramento to Fresno. "He is no threat to anyone, anywhere in the world.... He is an American hero and a Hmong hero who has saved thousands of lives."

U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott issued a statement saying his office respects the Hmong community's right to protest, but expects they "will understand why we made the decisions we did" once more information becomes public.

Attorneys for the accused said they expect their clients to be indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury. The charges they face now were in a complaint filed by Scott's office. Their next hearing is set for Monday, when supporters are promising an even larger crowd.'

Video Link

11th Man Arrested in Alleged Laos Plot
Written by George Warren, Reporter - Written by C. Johnson, Internet News Producer

As many as 1,000 Hmong protestors gathered at the bail hearing for Gen. Vang Pao on June 11
An 11th man has been arrested in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the communist government of Laos.

News10 has learned Dang Vang, 48, was taken into custody by Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents in Fresno this morning. He is scheduled to be formally charged in Sacramento federal court this afternoon.

Also today, a federal grand jury in Sacramento will hear evidence from federal prosecutors seeking an indictment against 10 other men in the alleged plot.

The men were charged in criminal complaints filed in federal court on June 4. Defense attorneys involved in the case have been told the expected indictment will include additional names.

A grand jury indictment supercedes a criminal complaint and eliminates the need for a preliminary hearing before trial.

In the nine days since the alleged conspirators were arrested in a series of raids up and down California, the defense strategy appears to be shifting.

At a bail hearing for General Vang Pao on Monday, his attorneys argued that the leader of the Hmong community in the United States had no involvement in the coup attempt.

"The general is innocent of the charges that have been brought against him," said Tom Heffelfinger, a former United States Attorney in Minneapolis.

But two prominent Sacramento defense attorneys involved in the case told News10 there's a growing consensus that their clients should accept responsibility.

"It seems pretty apparent the defense at this point... is that they were led to believe this was the CIA that was helping them do this," said Mark Reichel. Reichel is the court-appointed counsel for Lo Cha Thao, 34, of Clovis.

"This looks exactly like a CIA project and I think that's what the jury is going to hear," said former federal prosecutor Bill Portanova. Portanova has been hired to represent Lo Thao, 53, of Sacramento.

Nine of the ten men charged in the case are Hmong refugees living in California. The tenth man, 60-year-old Harrison Jack of Woodland, is a retired West Point Army officer and Vietnam veteran.

Prosecutors allege Jack attempted to buy weapons and recruit insurgents on behalf of the Hmong defendants to attack Laotian government targets. Hmong leaders claim their people in Laos are victims of government genocide.

Attorneys Reichel and Portanova said it's reasonable to assume the Hmong expatriates in California believed they still had the support of the United States government because of Harrison Jack's connections in the military community.

"You can very easily see how somebody might be misled into believing they're actually doing something with the (United States) government, said Portanova.

Hmong involvement in the CIA-backed secret war in Laos is well documented. General Vang Pao, 77, was the highest ranking Hmong officer in the Royal Lao Army. He and thousands of other Hmong refugees fled Laos when the country fell to the communists in 1975.

"At some point, apparently, the government decided they weren't working with the Hmong any more," said Portanova. "But I don't think the Hmong ever really got the message."

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