(Morning Star News) – A pastor and four other church leaders in Laos were convicted last week of being “illegal doctors” because they prayed for a sick woman who later died.
The People’s Court of Savannakhet Province on Feb. 12 sentenced the five Christians to nine months in prison and a fine of 500,000 kips (US$62) each. In addition, the defendants are to jointly pay 20 million kips (US$2,448) in emotional damages and funeral costs to the family of the deceased, according to court records.
The woman who died, identified only as Chansee (also known as Chan), had been ill for two years with an unknown condition. Various kinds of healers and doctors in Saisomboon village, Atsaphangthong District, had treated her without success, area residents told a representative of the Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).
“Without proving that the five Christians had malicious intent or that their action of prayer was cause-in-fact of the death, the court has abused the law,” a representative of HRWLRF told Morning Star News on condition of anonymity. “Facts needed to be brought out in court that the arrest and conviction was to stop the Christians from spreading the Christian faith.”
Held in stocks after their arrest in June 2014, the Christians – female pastor Kaithong Khounphaisane and four leaders of other churches identified in court records as Phouphet, Muk, Hatsady and Thiang – are now imprisoned at Savannakhet Provincial Prison.
Several healers and doctors in Saisomboon village had treated Chansee without success, according to HRWLRF. Chansee, who had put her faith in Christ, on June 19, 2014 requested prayer from the Christian leaders, who prayed for her for two days, according to court records. When her condition did not improve, the Christians brought her to 109 Hospital in Utumphone District, where she was treated by a licensed physician.
On June 21 she requested discharge from the hospital so she could die at home, and by arrival she had died, court records show.
The Ministry of Health is responsible for authorizing candidates for medical practice, the HRWLRF representative said.
“The officials in the Ministry of Health were not called upon by the People’s Court to give opinion whether praying for the sick alone, without the use of drug or material remedy, needs authorization from the Ministry of Health,” he said. “Secondly, it was not proved beyond any doubt that prayer was the cause-in-fact of the death.”
By ruling that praying for the sick for healing in accordance with one’s religious beliefs constitutes an act considered medical practice requiring a license from the Ministry of Health, the People’s Court wrongly found the five Christians guilty of performing medical profession without license, the HRWLRF representative said.
“In the whole process of investigation and court trial, the five Christians were not given the chance to have a lawyer to represent their case,” he added.
Two of Chansee’s children, identified as Poung and Khay, on June 24 had petitioned the court for the defendants to pay the family 100 million kips (US$12,238) in order to compensate for the death of their mother. On Jan. 26, two other children, identified as Khone and Ham, filed a statement saying that Kaithong had done everything possible to help their mother and that they had no intention of bringing charges against her.
The court sentenced the pastors to pay the family 15 million kips (US$1,836) in emotional damages and 5 million kips (US$612] for funeral expenses, a total of US$2,448.
Initially they were arrested only over a burial dispute. On the day Chansee died, her sons and daughters secured permission from the Saisomboon village chief to organize a Christian burial ceremony and to bury her on their own personal property, as Christians are denied burial rights in the Saisomboon village cemetery. When the time came to gather for mourning on June 22, however, the village chief, along with the village’s Communist party secretary, reversed the decision.
The officials banned the mourning gathering as well as the burial ceremony unless her children signed an affidavit to recant their Christian faith; they refused and maintained their intention to carry out a Christian funeral, according to HRWLRF.
On June 22, Christians came from nearby villages to attend the mourning service, but authorities forbade it. The next day, the leader of Saisomboon village church, Kaithong, filed an appeal of the prohibition with the Atsaphangthong District chief. On June 24, village police and military personnel went to the deceased person’s house, where a gathering was underway, and arrested Kaithong along with Phouphet, leader of the Donpalai village church.
About 20 minutes later, authorities returned to the gathering and arrested Muk, leader of Huey village church, Hatsady, leader of Bungthalay village church in Palansai District, and Thiang.
A half hour later, the village chief led Buddhist monks and relatives of Chansee into her house and conducted a Buddhist funeral ceremony, before taking her body to the village cemetery, the HRWLRF representative said. Christians at the gathering left Chansee’s house, he said, and went home.
Buddhists make up more than 57 percent of the population of the Communist country, according to Operation World. About 35 percent of the population adheres to indigenous religions, and only 3.4 percent of the population is Christian.
Praying for healing, an exercise of religious freedom and belief, does not constitute medical practice that would necessitate medical license, which can only be issued by the Lao Ministry of Health, according to HRWLRF.
“The verdict of the People’s Court regarding the five Christians appears to have no legal basis,” the organization said in a statement. “Thus, the HRWLRF urges the Lao government and the People’s Court of Savannakhet Province to reconsider the judgment of the People’s Court and to respect the right of the five Christians and other Lao people to religious freedom and the accompanying rights as guaranteed in the Lao constitution and the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Laos in 2009, upholding the individual’s right to adopt a religion/belief of choice as well as the right to manifest that religion/belief in a corporate worship (Article 18). Any form of coercion impairing the freedom to have and manifest one’s religion/belief of choice is condemned in the Covenant.”
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