Friday, May 08, 2009


As pregnant Briton Samantha Orobator faces a possible death sentence for drug smuggling in Laos, Alastair Leithead discovers the communist state is concerned the bad publicity could impact on its economy.

Samantha Orobator
Samantha Orobator fell pregnant four months after being taken into prison

The French have an expression about Laos: the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.

It is apparently that laid-back in the sleepy hollows of this hot, humid and beautiful country; especially when you consider 80% of the workforce are out in the paddy fields - listening.

The Lao People's Democratic Republic is a communist state. It is sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand.

Its western border is framed by the mighty Mekong river which winds its way from the Tibetan plateau out into the South China Sea.

It is a long way from home and it is not a place to be in prison.

Thirty five thousand British tourists now come here every year - it is on the backpacker circuit.

Aid money gives the government much of what it needs, but tourists are a nice little earner, and headlines about a pregnant young woman facing the death penalty on drugs-smuggling charges are bad for business.

The Lao authorities know all this, and so it is perhaps not surprising that they prevented a British barrister who had travelled here from seeing her client - when the legal aid organisation she represents had painted a not necessarily accurate picture of an innocent woman raped and facing a firing squad.

Campaign groups, like Reprieve in this case, are paid to raise the alarm, and they have certainly brought plenty of attention to the story of Samantha Orobator.

The Lao listened to what the British media was saying and did not like what they heard.

In strong, controlled, communist states, rules are strict and punishments harsh.

Laos is concerned the Orobator case could deter tourists

Laos was once at the heart of the Golden Triangle. Over a decade opium growth dropped sharply, but now it is drifting upwards again.

The death penalty was introduced a few years ago for anyone caught smuggling anything over half a kilo of heroin.

Although relatively small beer in trafficking terms, the amount of drugs Samantha Orobator was caught with was enough - in theory and if convicted - to result in a death sentence.

She does not deny she was a drugs mule, but says it was done under duress.

Little more is known about Samantha's case, or how she will defend a capital charge, as she has not been able to talk to a lawyer in the 10 months since she has been in jail.

She was offered one, but at a cost well beyond her and her family's means. That is where Reprieve's barrister came in - and despite the row over access to the prison, it seems to have pushed the Lao government into allocating a defence lawyer ahead of the trial.

Awful as it sounds, being five months pregnant certainly helps her cause.

I was told in no uncertain terms Laos wants her case "to go away".

"The last thing we want here is a pregnant woman in prison," said a spokesman.

Jane Orobator
Jane Orobator has appealed for her daughter's release

He went on to explain that according to the law a death sentence cannot be handed down to an expectant mother.

Executions in Laos are rare anyway.

As to how she became pregnant while in custody, there are theories.

Rape was a conclusion many newspapers jumped to straight away. But she, herself, has said she was not raped.

I am told she is upset by the suggestion she was. There is also a scarcely believable story of her being deliberately and medically impregnated.

She may never say what happened, but "a fling" is how it has been described here.

In strong, controlled, communist states bureaucracy is also king. As journalists we were surprised to be given official accreditation, and the government minder that comes with it.

Permission to film in or around prisons is always difficult, so it is perhaps not surprising it was denied.

But Laos knows the eyes of the world are watching; and those who care about image and reputation want the media to see they are following the rules and want to show Samantha can, at the very least, be defended at her trial.

As a liberal democracy, perhaps with a little hangover of colonialism, we always expect British people who get caught up in trouble abroad to be treated the same way they would at home.

Would Samantha Orobator be on the front page of the newspapers if she had been caught carrying heroin into the UK?

She would, of course, be given proper medical treatment and a free defence lawyer, but would there have been such an outpouring of public sympathy?

The ease of tourism around the globe can give people a false sense of what can happen to them in remote places when things go wrong.

Yes, there are embassies, but there are also prisons, many of them not comfortable, and court systems not perhaps as open as our own.

The foreign minister of Laos is meeting a British government minister on Thursday in London, and on the schedule is the signing of a prisoner exchange treaty between the two countries.

It may be just the opportunity Laos needs to get rid of the bad publicity, and for a very scared young woman to at least get the care she needs.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 7 May, 2009 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service



Blogger justin said...

This is so crazy that this woman has to be put through this. I have always wanted to visit Thailand and Laos but after hearing all the bad things that can go wrong and who knows, someone could plant drugs on you and not be aware of it so if you are actually innocent like she is you get screwed by their corrupt government! Its too bad that a country like that is so messed up, I hope this makes people think twice about visiting Laos or anywhere close.

5:43 pm  
Blogger Sethken said...

The blame should rather go to the Nigerian leaders (Umaru Yar Adua and co), who continue to feed fat off of the coffers of the public treasury. This young woman left Nigeria at the age of eight, due to political and economic instability in Nigeria for Britain. She left the warmth of her parent’s home as a child to go and live with an aunt, half way around the world. If Nigeria had provided for her, she won’t have been in London in the first place. She would have been raised under the watchful eyes of her loving parents. It is always a Nigerian youth being executed in some Asian country due to drug trafficking, drug trafficking as a result of abject poverty and a sense of helplessness that continues to bedevil the common Nigerian. Nigeria is the most corrupt country humanity has ever seen. It is a country where her leaders don’t give a crap about the welfare of the common Nigerian. It is a country where the future of an average Nigerian youth is so bleak. What I am trying to say is this: there are poor people everywhere. It is the responsibility of Nigerian leaders to provide for and propel her youths. There are very many poor Americans and British citizens, and these citizens are provided for by their respective governments, to prevent desperate actions such as the one exhibited by this young lady. How many times have we read of an American or an Italian citizen on the verge of execution in Laos or Indonesia due to drug trafficking? Americans are not more hard working than Nigerians. The difference is that Americans live in a sane and decent political system, while Nigerians don’t. Nigeria is country ruled by a bunch of thugs who masquerade as politicians, who don’t care about the plight or welfare of their fellow country man or woman. Unless Nigerians wake up and reclaim their country, we will continue to read these kinds of news on a daily basis. This whole thing is so mind boggling. Just unbelievable! Again, she is even lucky she has the British government on her side, because of her naturalization status as a British citizen.

7:57 pm  
Anonymous lao said...

Believe me. Even laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, we also have our own dignity. This women is a drug trafficker. She is not an angel. Her life in jail should not be better off than any other Lao. Why would we give her a special treament to live like queen? As for her pregnancy, only she can tell. Is she really pregnant? or just her own desperate measure to spare herself from extinction? Thousands of Britons have visited Laos, no problem. Or are the Bristish government suggesting that trafficking 1 pound of heroin is not a biggy? Perhaps we should send some Lao to the UK with 1 pound of heroin each. If they get caught, just send them back home TO THE WARMTH OF THEIR LOVE ONES.

8:28 am  

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