New York, June 30, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is outraged that two journalists and their American translator were convicted today by a Laotian court in Phonesavan, a town in the northeastern Xieng Khuang province. Although it is unclear what the charges were, CPJ has confirmed that Belgian journalist Thierry Falise, French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, and American Naw Karl Mua, were each sentenced to 15 years in prison.

On June 4, Laotian security forces arrested the journalists in a remote area in northern Laos. The journalists were reporting on a little-known anti-government rebellion by a group of ethnic minority Hmong.

The U.S. and French ambassadors to Laos attended the court proceedings, which lasted about two- and-half hours and were off-limits to the foreign press. The absence of reporters at the trial made it difficult to ascertain the full charges against the men. There were conflicting reports that they had been charged with either “obstructing security forces,” or possession of weapons, or both.

The charges stemmed from an incident in which Hmong rebels clashed with local security forces, according to the Laotian government. The journalists told a companion prior to their arrests that the only casualty in the firefight had been a Hmong rebel. Four Hmong were also arrested as a result of the incident, but their fate has not been made public.

Diplomatic sources told Agence France-Presse that an appeal of the conviction was possible.

Falise and Reynaud are well-regarded journalists based in Bangkok, Thailand. Naw Karl Mua, a pastor from Minnesota and an ethnic Hmong, was acting as their interpreter.

“We are appalled by these sentences,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “The secrecy surrounding the charges, the brevity of the trial, and the lack of independent media access to the proceedings make us doubt that the accused were given anything resembling a fair hearing.”