Updated: April 23, 2015 07:16 PM GMT
The sentencing of five Christians by a Laos provincial court earlier this month for violating the country’s laws governing medical practice by praying for the health of a dying woman has drawn sharp criticism from international rights groups.
A criminal tribunal of the People’s Court of Savannakhet province delivered its verdict on February 12 in a case that dates back to June last year and sentenced the five defendants to nine months in prison for “being illegal doctors”, according to an English language translation of the court decision.
“The message that this court ruling is sending to Christians in Laos is that government authorities, from now on, can arrest and criminalize Christians gathering for prayers for the sick and the suffering,” Sirkoon Prasertsee, director of the US-based Human Rights Watcher for Laos Religious Freedom (HRWLRF), told ucanews.com via email.
“The court ruling is threatening the very core of the Christian religion, where prayer for the sick and suffering is now officially ruled as a criminal offense.”
According to court documents, Mrs Chansee — a Buddhist convert to Christianity — had sought prayers for healing last year from a group of Christians.
She had previously sought medical attention for an unspecified illness and had sought healing prayers at the urging of two relatives, including one of her daughters.
The five defendants, listed in court documents as farmers but identified as pastors or Christian leaders by the HRWLRF, met with Mrs Chansee to conduct a prayer service.
Mrs Chansee was subsequently brought to a hospital in Outhoumphone district for medical treatment on June 21. She later died shortly after returning home with one of her daughters.
The five defendants were arrested three days later after a dispute erupted over a plan to provide Mrs Chansee with a Christian burial.
Prasertsee further noted that the five defendants were not allowed representation by a defense attorney and that the court made no effort to determine the cause of Mrs Chansee’s death.
In its decision, the court said it had determined that “these deeds performed by the defendants constituted indeed a criminal act of working as illegal doctors….”
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told ucanews.com that the court decision was a clear example of the government’s lack of commitment to protect the rights of religious minorities.
“Laos’ record on religious freedom leaves a lot to be desired, especially when it comes to the sorts of harassment and repression inflicted by authorities on any congregation or group that has not received official permission to operate,” he said via email.
“Given Laos’ loosely written Decree on Religious Practice, which outlaws any religious practice that the authorities deem could create ‘social division’ or ‘chaos’ but then fails to clearly define those terms, the result is effective impunity for local officials to go after religious minority groups when they see fit.”
Robertson added: “If this group of five is charged and convicted for doing nothing more than praying at a dying woman’s side, then this could mark a new nadir for religious freedom in the country — so let’s hope that common sense will prevail and Laos drops the case immediately.”
In its 2013 annual report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom acknowledged some improvement in religious freedom in the country but said that progress remained uneven.
“Over the past five years religious freedom conditions have improved for the majority Buddhist groups and for religious groups in urban areas, but provincial officials continue to violate religious freedoms of ethnic minority Protestants through detentions, surveillance, harassment, property confiscations, and forced renunciations of faith,” the report stated.
Prasertsee said the defendants, who are currently being held in detention in Savannakhet Provincial Prison, would likely appeal the verdict but could face problems yet again in finding legal representation.
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