JUSTICE SYSTEM, POLICE AND CRIME IN LAOS

CRIME IN LAOS

The government of Laos does not publish official crime statistics; however, anecdotal evidence supports the assertion that crime continues to increase over criminal activity measured in previous years.) The present crime trend is not expected to abate, as the law enforcement agencies in Laos are considered generally ineffective and incapable of dealing with the increase in criminal activity. [Source: Overseas Security Advisory Council]

Laos has a relatively low crime rate and Laotians are generally a very law-abiding people. Violent crime is uncommon but petty crime occurs. There is some theft in the big cities. There is also some banditry, illegal drug activity and insurgent activity in some areas in the countryside. Foreigners are generally not victimized by violent crime. If they are and the criminals are caught they are dealt with harshly. Police and other authorities generally do not hassle foreigners to much or shake them down for bribes.

The number of thefts and assaults in Laos has increased in recent years, and some have turned violent. Sexual assaults also occur in Laos. You should exercise caution, particularly after dark, at roadside restaurants, bars and stalls. Foreigners are often victims of purse snatchings while eating or while riding bicycles or motorcycles. Please be careful when carrying these items on your person. Residential burglary is commonplace. Local law enforcement responses to crimes, even violent crimes, are often limited. Foreigners attempting to report crimes have reported finding police stations closed, emergency telephone numbers unanswered, or policemen lacking transportation or authorization to investigate crimes that occur at night.

Crime committed against foreigners is usually non-confrontational in nature and primarily consists of purse snatching, pick pocketing, thefts, and unattended property (purses/ shopping bags), or residential burglary. Physical assaults are relatively rare, aside from purse snatching. 2011 saw a steady increase in street crime and residential burglary over past years; this trend is generally attributed to an increase in methamphetamine abuse.

“Crime Wave” in Vientiane in May 2013

In May 2013, the Vientiane Times reported: “Vientiane Police Headquarters are cracking down on criminals after a raft of incidents in the capital over the past week and have arrested several suspects. According to a police report yesterday, about 55 crimes occurred in Vientiane last week, mostly robberies, fighting among gang members, bag snatching, and drug use and dealing. Police said all these issues affected social order and created insecurity and warned the public to be on their guard against such incidents. In the meantime, the police are committed to working harder to maintain public security in the capital. [Source: Vientiane Times, May 5, 2013 \=\]

“On May 9, police arrested two men whom they charged with possessing nine packs of ice (crystal methamphetamine). The first man was Mr Phouvan, 42, a worker from Phonkheng village in Xaysettha district, and the second was Mr Sengphet, 37, a mechanic from Kham-Ngoy village, also in Xaysettha district. \=\

“In another incident, on May 13, Ms Phuangvan, 49, from Xamke village in Xaysettha district, arrived to open up her shop near the bus station next to the Morning Market as usual. She placed her bag, which contained more than 10 million kip, on a table and then busied herself selling goods to her customers. A while later she looked in her bag and found that all the money was gone, but she had no idea who had taken it because there were so many people around. \=\

“In another theft, which occurred on May 11, two criminals broke open the door to the apartment rented by Ms Vilayvone Phandalak, 23, in Thongphanthong village, Sisattanak district.The thieves took everything of value, including a necklace, notebook computer, mobile phone and 3,000 baht in cash (about 780,000 kip). \=\

On May 8 last week, Mr Inthavong, 25, returned from school and locked his motorbike outside his rented apartment in Xiengda village, Xaysettha district, before going inside. About 30 minutes later, he saw a man moving his motorbike before riding away on it. He screamed for help but it was too late as the thief had already fled the scene. Only last week, 11 motorbikes and two cars were stolen in Vientiane, as recorded by the police. There are almost certainly many other thefts that have not been reported. \=\

“The above cases should serve as reminders to the general public of how easy and common it is for thieves to steal other people’s property. The police are investigating all of these cases in hopes of tracking down the perpetrators. Police say robbery is on the rise as a result of economic pressures, the growing number of drug users and dealers, high unemployment and the desire to live an extravagant lifestyle. Some of those arrested are repeat offenders who have previously served prison sentences for criminal activities and failed to learn the lesson that in the end crime does not pay. \=\

Justice System in Laos

Legal system: civil law system similar in form to the French system. International law organization participation: has not submitted an ICJ (International Court of Justice) jurisdiction declaration; non-party state to the International Criminal Court (ICCt).

The present Laos government did not establish a legal code until 1988. The code established a court system, a prosecutor’s office, criminal trial rules and liberal investment rules. It also upheld the right to private property. The code was set up around the time that Laos began seeking foreign investment.

The justice system of people’s courts in Laos is comprised of the People's Supreme Court, People's Provincial and Municipal Courts, People's District Courts, and Military Courts. The president of the People's Supreme Court is elected by the National Assembly on the recommendation of the National Assembly Standing Committee; the vice president of the People's Supreme Court and the judges are appointed by the National Assembly Standing Committee. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Like everything else in Laos the workings of the justice system are murky. Anyone can be detained for almost anything. Foreigners have wound up in jaul for marrying a Lao national without permission. Others accused of crimes have disappeared. An entire trial often lasts no more than a couple hours. There is usually no avenue for appeal.

The legal system within Laos bears little resemblance to that of most developed countries. While the country does have published laws forming the basis of its law enforcement protocols, it also sometimes enforces what appear to be unpublished laws and regulations. Enforcement of these laws can be arbitrary and specific to the situation. Visitors to Laos should be aware that many of the rights afforded to them in the U.S. do not exist within Laos. [Source: Overseas Security Advisory Council]

The law provides for the independence of the judiciary. The judiciary is weak. Impunity and corruption were problems; reportedly, some judges could be bribed. The National Assembly may remove judges from office for "impropriety," although no judges were removed during the year. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011]

The law provides for independence of the judiciary in civil matters; however, enforcement of court orders remained a problem. If civil or political rights are violated, one may seek judicial remedy in a criminal court or pursue an administrative remedy from the NA under the law. In regard to social and cultural rights, one may seek remedy in a civil court.^^

Development of the Justice System in Laos

The development of the legal and judicial system did not begin until almost fifteen years after the state was proclaimed. In November 1989, a criminal code and laws establishing a judicial system were adopted. In 1993 the government began publishing an official gazette to disseminate laws, decrees, and regulations. In 1990 the judicial branch was upgraded. New legislation provided a draft of a criminal code, established procedures for criminal cases, set up a court system, and established a law school. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice added a fourth year of studies to a law program for training magistrates and judges. Also in 1990, the functions of the Supreme People's Court were separated from those of the office of the public prosecutor general. Until then, the minister of justice served as both president of the court and director of public prosecutions.[Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Although the implementation of judicial reforms proceeded slowly and had not significantly improved the administration of justice by mid-1994, the new legal framework offers the possibility of moving away from the arbitrary use of power toward the rule of law. In late 1992, however, the government suspended the bar until it formulates regulations for fees and activities of (the few) private lawyers who are able to advise in civil cases. Lawyers are not allowed to promote themselves as attorneys-at-law. Theoretically, the government provides legal counsel to the accused, although in practice persons accused of crimes must defend themselves, without outside legal counsel. However, the assessors (legal advisers)--who are often untrained--and the party functionaries are being increasingly replaced by professional personnel trained at the Institute of Law and Administration. *

The constitution empowers the National Assembly to elect or remove the president of the Supreme People's Court and the public prosecutor general on the recommendation of its Standing Committee. The Standing Committee of the National Assembly appoints or removes judges (previously elected) of the provincial, municipal, and district levels. Further evidence of an attempt to shift toward a professional judicial system is found in the public prosecution institutes provided for at each level of administration. The task of these institutes is to control the uniform observance of laws by all ministries, organizations, state employees, and citizens. They prosecute under the guidance of the public prosecutor general, who appoints and removes deputy public prosecutors at all levels. *

Trial Procedures in Laos

By law, defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence; however, in practice judges usually decided guilt or innocence in advance, basing their decisions on the result of police or prosecutorial investigation reports. Most trials, including criminal trials, were little more than pro forma examinations of the accused and review of the evidence. Juries are not used. Trials that involve certain criminal laws relating to national security, state secrets, children under the age of 16, or certain types of family law are closed. The law provides for open trials in which defendants have the right to defend themselves with the assistance of a lawyer or other persons. Defense attorneys are provided at government expense only in cases involving children, cases with the possibility of life imprisonment or the death penalty, and cases considered particularly complicated, such as those involving foreigners. The law requires that authorities inform persons of their rights and states that defendants may have anyone assist them in preparing written cases and accompany them at trial; however, only the defendant may present oral arguments at a criminal trial. Defendants are permitted to question witnesses and can present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have the right of appeal. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Court litigants may select members of the Lao Bar Association to represent them at trial. The association is nominally independent but receives some direction from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). For several reasons, including the general perception that attorneys cannot affect court decisions, most defendants did not choose to have attorneys or trained representatives. The association's two satellite offices in the provinces of Champasak and Oudomsay provided legal services to citizens in need.^^

All of the country's judges were LPRP members. Most had only basic legal training, and some zonal courts had few or no reference materials available for guidance. The NA's Legal Affairs Committee occasionally reviewed the Supreme People's Court (SPC) decisions for "accuracy" and returned cases to it or the OPG for review when the committee believed decisions were reached improperly.^^

Police in Laos

Police tend to be poorly trained, poorly equipped, and unresponsive to criminal activity. Although officers are polite, few speak English, and most will not react without a formal authorization from their supervisor officers. Police have set up random checkpoints, imposed occasional curfews, and maintained static posts, which have helped deter some crime. [Source: Overseas Security Advisory Council]

The Ministry of Public Security (MoPS) maintains internal security but shares the function of state control with the Ministry of Defense's security forces and with the LPRP and the LPRP's popular front organizations. The MoPS includes local police, traffic police, immigration police, security police (including border police), and other armed police units. Communication police are responsible for monitoring telephone and electronic communications. The armed forces have domestic security responsibilities that include counterterrorism and counterinsurgency as well as control of an extensive system of village militias. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Impunity remained a problem, as did police corruption. The MoPS Inspection Department maintained complaint boxes throughout most of the country for citizens to deposit written complaints. The government cooperated with international organizations to implement a national strategy to strengthen law enforcement and deal with increased drug trafficking and abuse as well as related crime and police corruption.^^

Police and military forces have powers of arrest, although normally only police carried them out. Police agents exercised wide latitude in making arrests, relying on exceptions to the requirement that warrants are necessary except to apprehend persons in the act of committing crimes or in urgent cases. Police reportedly sometimes used arrest as a means to intimidate persons or extract bribes. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports that military forces detained persons suspected of insurgent activities.^^

Prisons in Laos

Prison conditions varied widely but in general were harsh and occasionally life threatening. Prisons were overcrowded with poor ventilation, minimal sanitation facilities, inadequate food and potable water, and substandard medical care. Prisoners in larger, state-operated facilities in Vientiane generally fared better than those in provincial prisons. Food rations were minimal, and most prisoners relied on their families for subsistence. Most of the larger facilities allowed prisoners to grow supplemental food in small vegetable gardens, although there were periodic reports that prison guards took food from prisoners' gardens. Prison wardens set prison visitation policies. Consequently, in some facilities families could make frequent visits, but in others visits were severely restricted. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

There were credible reports from international organizations that authorities treated ethnic minority prisoners particularly harshly. Former prisoners reported that incommunicado detention was used as an interrogation technique and against perceived problem prisoners; however, there were no reports of its use during the year. Although most prisons had some form of clinic, usually with a doctor or nurse on staff, medical facilities were extremely poor and medical treatment for serious ailments was unavailable. In some facilities prisoners could arrange treatment in outside hospitals if they could pay for the treatment and the expense of police escorts. ^^

Male and female prisoners were held in the same prisons but were placed in separate cells. In some prisons juveniles were held with adult prisoners, although there were no official or reliable statistics available. Most juveniles were in detention for narcotics offenses or petty crimes. Family members generally could access prisoners and detainees, although sometimes the family did not live close to the jail. Prisoners and detainees could follow some religious observances, but no facilities were provided. ^^

Authorities permitted prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and to request investigation of credible allegations of inhumane conditions; however, family members rarely make such requests for fear of exacerbating poor detention conditions. There were no investigations of credible allegations of inhumane conditions. There were no records of government investigation or monitoring of prison and detention center conditions. ^^

The government did not permit regular independent monitoring of prison conditions. The government continued to deny the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to establish an official presence in the country to monitor prison conditions. The government at times provided foreign diplomatic personnel access to some prisons, but such access was strictly limited. There were no ombudsmen to serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees. ^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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