Suspect in Laos plot detained in Thailand; suspects plead not guilty in California

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A suspect whom police believe to be connected with the alleged plot by Hmong Americans to overthrow the government of Laos has been captured and detained in Thailand, police said yesterday.

Nan Province, on the border with Laos, is highlighted on a map of Thailand.

The man was identified as Sha Wang Lee, 53. He was arrested on Monday while trying to cross the border into Laos in northern Thailand's Nan Province. Police said he was carrying an expired United States passport that showed his hometown as Fresno, California. He also had a military-training certificate signed by Vang Pao.

Royal Thai Police Captain Sitthinan Sithkamjorn told the Associated Press that the man was taken to the U.S. embassy in Bangkok.

Kathleen Boyle, an embassy spokeswoman, said she could not comment on the case because of privacy concerns.

Sittihinan said the man would be detained in Thailand for overstaying his visa if he was not deported to the U.S.

Pleaded not guilty

Also on Monday, Vang Pao and nine others accused in the plot pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges in U.S. district court in Sacramento, California. They are charged with violating the Neutrality Act, which makes it a crime to conspire to overthrow a foreign government that is on friendly terms with the United States, as well as conspiracy to kill, kidnap and maim, and conspiracy to export munitions without a license. They could face life in prison if convicted.

Vang Pao, 77, is a former general in the Royal Lao Army who led U.S.-backed Hmong forces against the communists in the Laotian Civil War, or "Secret War" that paralleled the Vietnam War. After the war, Vang Pao immigrated to the U.S.

Among the suspects is Harrison Jack, 60, a former California National Guard colonel and U.S. Army Ranger who ran covert operations during the Vietnam War. The others charged are all Hmong-American men, many of them prominent members of Hmong community in California's Central Valley. They were Lo Cha Thao, 34; Youa True Vang, 60; Hue Vang, 39; Chong Yang Thao, 53; Seng Vue, 68; Chue Lo, 59; and Nhia Kao Vang, 48. An 11th suspect, Dang Vang, 48, was arrested last week and had already pleaded not guilty.

U.S. authorities arrested Vang Pao and nine others in a sting operation set up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), in which the defendants met at a Thai restaurant in Sacramento with a man they believed was an arms dealer but was in fact an undercover ATF agent.

After leaving the restaurant, they examined a truckload of weapons that contained AK-47s, M-16 rifles, C-4 explosives, anti-tank rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and Claymore mines, according to the federal indictment.

Their plan was, authorities say, to ship the weapons to Thailand, where they would then be smuggled into Laos and used to blow up government buildings in the Laotian capital, Vientiane.

The court has refused to grant bail to any of the defendants, saying those pose too great a danger and flight risk.

Protests at capital

The California state capital in Sacramento.

About 1,000 Hmong people rallied on the Sacramento district courthouse steps, calling for the release of Vang Pao. Waving American flags, signs and posters of Vang Pao, among their chants was "Free Vang Pao! Freedom Now!"

Another rally by around 1,500 Hmong people was held on the steps the state capital in Sacramento, where demonstrators demanded that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger speak about the case.

"We want Arnold to come out and say something!" protest leader Vanmong Xiong of Sacramento was quoted as saying by the Sacramento Bee. "Arnold has the power to talk to President Bush, and Bush should dismiss it [the case]!"

According to Xiong, about 8,500 Hmong refugees from the Secret War are still in Laos, on the run in the mountain jungles, fleeing from the persecution of the communist government that has ruled the country since 1975.

"Who paid for this?" he thundered. "The taxpayers of the U.S.! We pay Laos to murder our men, women and children in the jungle!"

Laotian Ambassador to the United States Phiane Philakone, was interviewed by the Sacramento Bee, saying there are no human rights violations against the Hmong in Laos, and he invited reporters to go see for themselves.

Name removed from school

Wisconsin, home to many Hmong war refugees, is highlighted on a map of the United States.

Simply referred to as The General by admirers in the Hmong community, Vang Pao is viewed as a folk hero by Hmong-Americans of his generation.

In Wisconsin, home to many Hmong war refugees, an elementary school was to be named after Vang Pao. On Monday in Madison, Wisconsin, the school board voted 7-0 to remove Vang Pao's name from the school, which is under construction.

Board members apologized to the Hmong community, but said the move was needed to defuse dissension in the community, and that the time was not right to name a school after Vang Pao.

"We have to make sure that there's not a lot of controversy surrounding a school that children will attend," board president Arlene Silveira was quoted as saying by WISC-TV.

The board had approved the name unanimously earlier this year, but the name had sparked controversy even before Vang Pao's arrest, with opponents cited allegations of Vang Pao's involvement in drug trafficking and war crimes during the Secret War.

Now there is uncertainty about what to name the new school.

"I think it is painful, but there's hope that the school board members are thinking about changing its policy and with that discussion we hope that the intention is to work with us again," Hmong community leader Koua Vang, executive director of United Refugee Services, was quoted as saying by WISC-TV.

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