Bail denied in Laos overthrow plot, Hmong protest

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Vang Pao circa 1962 to circa 1964.
(Image missing from Commons: image; log)

Vang Pao, the Hmong military leader charged with plotting to overthrow the government of Laos, was ordered yesterday by a United States federal court judge to remain in custody without bail.

U.S. Magistrate Edmund Brennan ruled that Vang Pao, 77, despite his age and ill health, posed too great a danger and a flight risk to be released.

"It's not up to private groups to decide which countries the United States should be at war with and at peace with," Brennan said.

Vang Pao and nine other people, mostly members of the Hmong immigrant community in California's Central Valley, were arrested last week in a sting operation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Authorities say the group was planning to buy a cache of arms, ship them to Thailand and then smuggle them into Laos, where they would blow up government buildings in Vientiane, the Laotian capital.

Outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento, California yesterday, about 2,000 white-clad supporters rallied for Vang Pao's release, holding portraits of the former Royal Lao Army general and waving signs saying "Honor your war heroes – don't jail them" and "Free our leader."

"He is to us like George Washington is to American citizens," Vang Zang, a Hmong leader from Minnesota was quoted as saying to the crowd by the Sacramento Bee. "The government has wrongly accused our father. But the moment he is released, he will go up ten times in popularity."

Vang Pao led a covert Hmong army backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the Laotian Civil War, or the "Secret War", which paralleled the U.S. fight against communism in Vietnam and the Vietnam War.

Since immigrating to the U.S. after the fall of Laos to communism in 1975, Vang Pao has become an American citizen and is viewed as a folk hero by the Hmong people.

Vang Pao's attorneys are Thomas Heffelfinger, a former federal prosecutor hired by Vang Pao's supporters, and John Balazs, a court-appointed defense lawyer from Sacramento. They argued that Vang Pao is "a man of peace" and too old and infirm to be jailed. Doing so, Balazs said, "could be a death sentence."

It's possible that Vang Pao could safely be released to house arrest and that access to communications devices be restricted, Balaz told the magistrate.

Nonetheless, Balazs also described his client as "a warrior, this is a legal battle, and he's in it to the end."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Twiss argued that Vang Pao is too dangerous and influential, and could still organize a plot no matter what restrictions were placed on him if he were freed.

"Thousands of people came here on the day of his detention hearing," Twiss was quoted as saying in an interview with Associated Press. "If General Vang Pao were to pick up a cellphone, is there any doubt they wouldn't execute his order? To me, it was an indication of his ability to effectuate action indirectly."