Laos pressures jailed Australian couple to confess - Apr 06, 2001
By Mark Baker, Herald Correspondent in Vientiane
Kerry and Kay Danes yesterday pleaded with the Federal Government to increase pressure for their release from jail after it was revealed that senior Lao Government officials were demanding money to set them free.
Australian diplomats confirmed that Lao authorities have renewed their interrogation of the Danes, who have been held without charge since December, and were insisting that they sign a confession about their role in an alleged gem-smuggling scam and pay "compensation".
The revelation has dashed hopes that the couple might be freed this week after a direct appeal from the Foreign Minister, Mr Downer, at a meeting with his Lao counterpart, Mr Somsavat Laengsavat, during a conference in Chile last weekend.
In his first public statement since their arrest, Mr Danes told the Herald: "We are both innocent, but the Lao authorities keep pressuring us to confess to crimes we didn't commit and they are demanding money for us to be released. We appreciate the efforts of the Australian Government so far, but much more needs to be done and quickly. Our situation is terrible."
Mr Danes, 42, who is on extended leave from the Australian Army's elite SAS regiment, was arrested on December 23 for his purported role in the theft of gems worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from a safe in the offices of the company Gem Mining Laos (GML) where he was in charge of security.
His wife Kay, 33, was detained a few hours later as she attempted to flee the country with her children Sahra, 11, and Nathan, 7, carrying about $US52,000 in cash from a private account.
The allegations were widely discredited and the Danes are seen as innocent victims of a battle between powerful figures within the Lao Government and foreign interests over control of the GML sapphire mine, regarded as one of the world's richest. Mr Danes spoke briefly to the Herald yesterday as he and his wife were being led separately by prison officers from a weekly consular access visit in Vientiane.
He said they were being held in "appalling conditions" in the Vientiane Detention Centre and he was worried about the pressure on his wife. They were not allowed to communicate and Mrs Danes had been able to speak only briefly with the children who are with her parents in Brisbane.
"I simply don't understand why we are still detained after all this time when there is no evidence against us," he said. "The conditions are awful. We are up to five people in small cells the size of a bathroom. Kay and I are kept apart and we are not allowed to communicate. I'm very concerned about Kay. She's under enormous pressure. She hasn't seen the children for almost four months."
Despite Australian demands for their release, it is believed that officials from the Lao public prosecutor's office renewed their interrogation of the Danes about two weeks ago.
At least one of the sessions is believed to have been attended by the powerful deputy head of the Lao Foreign Investment Management Committee, Mr Bounmali Vilavong, who was linked to a rival group of foreign investors seeking to wrest control of the GML mine from its owners.
The Australian ambassador to Laos, Mr Jonathan Thwaites, said the Danes were under considerable pressure.
"The interrogation is pretty intense. The attitude seems to be that all they need to do is confess, pay compensation and then they can go. But the whole idea of their confessing to something they didn't do is just anathema and we've told them [the Lao authorities] that, time and again."