Rights groups call for release of Lao pastor held for disrupting ‘unity’

Pastor Sithon Thippavong seen at a Christian wedding ceremony in Savannakhet province in September 2018 in a photo provided by a family member to Radio Free Asia.

International human rights groups called for the release of a Christian leader who is being held in Laos for more than a year for allegedly violating a law protecting religious practice.

Pastor Sithon Thippavong, 34, was arrested on March 15, 2020, for allegedly organizing religious services without the authorities’ permission. He has been a pastor in Savannaket’s Xonnaboury district since 2011.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Asia-Pacific Region, told Radio Free Asia that Sithon’s continued detention is a “serious human rights violation.”

“In fact, the Lao authorities should release Pastor Sithon and apologize for arresting and detaining him,” he added. “In general, the authorities should not violate the rights and freedom of those who believe in religion.”

Bounthone Chanthalavong-Weise, president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos has reported Sithon’s arrest and “other violations of human rights” in Laos to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.”

“We have asked that agency to pressure the Lao government to release the pastor,” said Bounthone Chanthalavong-Weise, president of the alliance, reported RFA.

Eric Blievernicht, operations manager for the US-based Christian organization Vision Beyond Borders, said they were deeply concerned for the pastor’s welfare.

“We are also disturbed by his extra-judicial imprisonment by the Lao government and are concerned he is not being treated well or fairly by his jailers,” Blievernicht said.

The Lao Evangelical Church in the capital Vientiane also voiced concern, asking its followers in Savannakhet to “closely follow the case.”

An official at the Savannakhet Province Prosecutor’s Office told RFA that Sithon had been accused of undermining social and cultural “unity” by his preaching.

“Our office has received all necessary documents and is still in the process of sending the case to court,” said the official.

A local court is set to try Pastor Sithon next week, according to reports.

Though improvements in religious freedom conditions were observed in Laos in 2019, cases of abuse were still seen in remote rural areas, according to a US Commission on International Religious Freedom report released in May 2020. - LICAS.news