Press briefing on Samantha Orobator’s ‘show trial’ in Laos

August 7, 2009

Image of Samantha Orobator

Samantha Orobator, a 20-year old Londoner, was arrested in Laos in August 2008 on a drugs charge. She returns to the UK today following a disgraceful ‘show trial’ conviction. The key facts and case background are outlined below.

“What took place in Laos was nothing more or less than a Stalinist show trial, which is hardly surprising since it is a totalitarian state. For the British government even to contemplate enforcing such a sham conviction would be truly shocking.”

– Sally Rowen, Death Penalty Legal Director, Reprieve

“If ever there was an innocent person, it is Samantha’s baby, waiting to come into this world. The idea that the first thing that the child sees will be Holloway Prison is horrifying and we trust that the British government will agree with that.”

– Clare Algar, Executive Director of Reprieve

“To call the Lao legal proceedings a kangaroo court would be an offence to the kangaroo family. The Lao government consistently violated Samantha’s legal rights, including coercing her into signing statements by withholding her right to a trial. She was at no point allowed confidential access to independent legal counsel, and was prevented from defending herself in court. How can we justify throwing someone in prison when we don’t even know the basic facts of the case? ”

– Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve

KEY FACTS

The Lao legal process was a complete sham. The Lao government consistently violated Samantha’s rights at every level, including:

  • her right to a fair and just investigation;
  • her right to consular access and assistance;
  • her basic rights as a prisoner;
  • her right to a fair trial;
  • her right to return to the UK.

The Lao government forced Samantha and her family to say ridiculous things before they would agree even to give her a show trial.

The trial was a farce, where Samantha had to parrot what the Lao Government wanted or they had told her she would get the death penalty. Indeed, the judges said she deserved the death penalty and was only not getting it because she was pregnant.

Samantha has never had access to a lawyer for a confidential discussion, a violation of the most basic legal right. Thus, she has never been able to say what really happened, and we have never been able to ask her.

Everything that happened in Laos was involuntary and all the statements she was forced to sign about her pregnancy and other matters were coerced.

CASE BACKGROUND: legal representation, arrest, detention & fair trial issues

Samantha was arrested on the 6th August 2008.
There is not a British Embassy in Laos – and there should be. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office clearly needs additional funding.

Samantha was not given the forms that would allow Reprieve to assist her for three months, and even after she had signed them and asked for Reprieve’s help, there were not given to Reprieve until January 2009, five months after she was arrested. Samantha conceived the child at the end of November or start of December 2008. It is still not clear who the father may be, or the circumstances under which the child was conceived.

When Reprieve became involved in the case Samantha’s trial was scheduled for August 2010, at a time when she would have already given birth and would have been eligible for the death penalty. It is therefore incorrect to state that Samantha became pregnant ‘to avoid the death penalty’, as has been suggested in the press. Samantha was also told that she was facing the death penalty regardless of her pregnancy. No headway had been made in Samantha’s case at the time that Reprieve got involved in the case. This was partly because the UK did not have an Embassy in Laos, and partly because the Lao government paid no heed to what the British asked (eg providing Samantha with a lawyer). When Reprieve finally got authorization, we went immediately into action to try to protect her basic human rights. The timing was already urgent due to her pregnancy, the fact that she had never seen a lawyer and the looming death penalty.

Samantha was never allowed to meet with her lawyer, embassy staff or Reprieve counsel Anna Morris alone. Each meeting was attended by numerous Lao officials. Prison conditions in Phonthong prison are appalling for anyone, but in particular a pregnant woman. Samantha and the baby’s nutritional requirements have undoubtedly not been met, not to mention the total lack of pre-natal care. During her time in prison, Samantha was interviewed by the Lao police, prosecutors, arresting officers and judge. No defence lawyer nor any representative from the British High Commission were present for any of these meetings. The British asked the Lao government to appoint a lawyer but did not receive a reply. No trial date had been set, and no meaningful proceedings had taken place, before Reprieve raised the stakes on the issues.

Reprieve was careful never to say she had been raped, but did raise the question of how she became pregnant. The swirling rumours that followed led to the Lao government starting a witch hunt. Before Reprieve lawyer Anna Morris left the UK, Reprieve secured permission from the Lao Government for Anna to have three days of confidential legal visits with Samantha. Anna flew to Vientiane, but the visits were cancelled without explanation on her arrival and the trial was moved forward; initially to the day before Anna was scheduled to arrive. The Lao lawyer wanted to be paid money to help Anna get any right of access to Samantha. This would be considered highly unethical for a British lawyer, as the process of “double dipping” – being court appointed or legal aid, and at the same time taking private payment. Eventually, as a result of this and all other pressure put on the Lao government to allow proper legal visitation, Anna Morris was only allowed to see Samantha in a room with no less than 10 Lao officials present. At no time was she allowed to speak to her in private. This was strictly forbidden.

During this meeting, a list of written answers Samantha had prepared to give to Reprieve regarding her welfare and treatment in prison were snatched by Lao officials when Samantha attempted to hand them to Anna. During her detention, Samantha was continually threatened with the death penalty, despite the fact that Lao Penal Law Article 32 forbids the imposition of the death penalty on a pregnant woman. Samantha was forced to sign numerous conflicting statements about the father of her baby.

She was instructed to sign one of these statements in front of Anna Morris and a representative of the British Embassy, but Anna was not allowed to see the statement or review it with Samantha. She was told that the trial would not take place until she signed these statements, and was threatened that the death penalty would remain an option unless she signed. If the trial had been delayed until after she had given birth then there would have been nothing to prevent the Lao court from imposing the death penalty. This was a very real threat being made to her. Sign the statements or we delay the trial and you will get the death penalty. Samantha was not appointed a lawyer until 6 May 2009, after sustained pressure from Reprieve. The Lao-appointed lawyer never spoke to Samantha alone, did not take any witness statements, make any investigations or commission any expert reports. At the trial:

Samantha was not asked to enter a plea; she was only questioned by the prosecution, not by the defence; no witnesses were called to give evidence except Samantha; Samantha was made to stand for at 30-35 minutes whilst she gave evidence; the prosecution lawyer asked the court to still give her the death penalty because she only became pregnant to avoid it, and she had brought bad media coverage; the defence spoke for only 20 minutes; the judges took only 30 minutes to reach a verdict and to decide what sentence to impose.

After the trial, Samantha immediately waived all Lao appeals which she had to do in order to be eligible to transfer under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement. Had she appealed, she might have faced a death sentence on appeal, she would not have received due process, and she would have had to give birth to her child in Laos. There was an unnecessary delay following the trial before a “Memorandum of Understanding” was signed between the governments. When the Lao government were asked about the delay, they claimed that Samantha was exploring the possibility of an appeal. This is not true. However there was a public statement to this effect from her Lao lawyer that was directly against her wishes, and that appeared to have been an attempt to sabotage her ability to transfer back to the UK and raise the political stakes.

-ENDS-

For more information please contact Katherine O’Shea at Reprieve’s Press Office katherine.oshea@reprieve.org.uk 020 7427 1099/ 07931592674.

Notes for Editors:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 33 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

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