Pregnant British inmate puts Laos justice system on trial

May 26th, 2009 - 9:50 am ICT by IANS  

By Simon Parry
Vientiane (Laos), May 26 (DPA) You can sense it in their agitated voices and exasperated expressions. They wish she wasn’t in their prison, they wish she wasn’t in their country, and they probably wish she had never been caught when she tried to board a plane in Vientiane last August with 680 grams of heroin allegedly hidden beneath her clothes.

For the Communist officials who run Laos, the case of 20-year-old Briton Samantha Orobator - awaiting trial on heroin smuggling charges that could technically still bring her the death penalty - has become an embarrassment that this landlocked South-East Asian backwater could do without.

What started out as a straightforward case of a young foreign woman acting with what appears to have been crass stupidity has instead brought the harsh light of international scrutiny on a controlling and secretive regime.

The thing that has made Orobator’s case a human rights issue is not the manner of her arrest or the conditions in which she is being held in Vientiane’s notoriously tough Phonthong Prison. Rather, it is the fact that, eight months after her arrest, she is now five months pregnant.

The Laos government refuses to say how she became pregnant but insists stubbornly it is “impossible” that she might have been raped inside jail or made pregnant by a prison guard, still defying logic in some interviews to claim she has been pregnant since before her arrest.

Orobator was made to sign a statement in prison declaring she had not been raped and that the father of her baby was not from Laos shortly after her pregnancy was confirmed in March.

A hasty, behind-closed-doors trial now looks likely to take place, possibly within days, after which Laos is expected to hand Orobator over to British embassy officials so that she can be flown home to serve out a prison sentence in Britain.

Little is known about what led Orobator, a Nigerian-born British citizen described by friends as extremely bright with ambitions to become a doctor, to fly to Thailand and then to Laos where she spent five days before her arrest at Wattaya Airport Aug 5 last year.

To the huge annoyance of government officials, however, far more attention has been devoted to the question of how she got pregnant in prison than why she may have tried to smuggle drugs out of Laos - and it is a question to which they are unwilling or unable to give a satisfactory answer.

“This case is not about babies - it is about heroin,” chief government spokesman Kenthong Nuanthasing said with a tone of rising annoyance. “She signed a statement to say she was not raped. She did not have intercourse with any man in prison. There is no male close to her during her time in prison. All the prisoners are women and all the guards are female.”

Asked who could have fathered the baby, he raised his eyes to the ceiling and said with an impatient laugh: “Maybe it is a baby from the sky like (the Virgin) Mary.”

So why was she made to sign a statement denying she was raped without explaining the truth of her pregnancy? Nuanthasing said: “We don’t want the outside world to blame us (for her pregnancy). That is why we asked her to write a letter to certify that she was not raped and the baby inside her is not a Lao baby.”

Nuanthasing made it clear that in order to return home to Britain, Orobator will be expected to confirm at her trial the statement she signed in prison. “She will tell the court - otherwise she will stay here,” he said. “Her court case will be dissolved.”

Such a delay could mean Orobator’s trial being delayed until after she gives birth and Nuanthasing stressed that the threat of a death sentence could still be invoked as she is only exempt from the death penalty while she is pregnant under Lao law. “Nobody can guarantee she will not face the firing squad,” he said.

The Laos government insists Orobator is being held in an all-female prison. In fact, Phonthong Prison on the outskirts of Vientiane holds male and female prisoners in separate blocks and has both male and female guards living in shabby quarters in the grounds outside.

A French former inmate who spent five months in the same prison over a business dispute said: “As soon as I read about the case of Samantha Orobator, I knew it must have been a prison guard who got her pregnant.

“Female prisoners are fair game for the guards there. They weren’t exactly raped but they were coerced into sex with promises. The guards would tell them they could get them off the death penalty or get them shorter sentence, or make life inside more comfortable for them.”

Orobator’s mother Jane, who lives in Dublin, visited her daughter in the company of government officials and issued a statement afterwards to say her daughter had told her she was not raped and that the father is not a prison guard.

That statement, while failing to resolve the nagging questions about Orobator’s pregnancy, will have pleased the Vientiane government and may help speed up the process of her trial and deportation.

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