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Coup suspects are put under house arrest

An accused former Laotian general and half a dozen others don't pose a risk, a judge rules.

July 13, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A federal judge Thursday ordered the release under house arrest of Gen. Vang Pao and half a dozen other aging expatriates accused of plotting a violent coup against the communist government of Laos.

Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd concluded that Vang Pao, 77, who fought in the Royal Lao Army alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam War and appeared in court stooped in a wheelchair, did not pose a danger or flight risk and approved his release on $1.5-million bail.

The judge's decision turned a placard-waving demonstration of several thousand Hmong outside the U.S. courthouse into a spontaneous celebration for the former military commander, whom some consider the father of their homeland. Women sobbed, families hugged, and gleeful youths sent geysers of water flying into Sacramento's warm summer sky.

"Now the hard work begins of proving Gen. Vang and his colleagues innocent of these very bad charges," defense attorney John Keker of San Francisco said after wading through the crowd to the courthouse steps. "We are confident they will be acquitted and go free."

Minutes after his ruling, Drozd ordered the release of several other defendants, including Harrison Jack, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and retired Army lieutenant colonel accused of approaching an undercover U.S. agent to buy AK-47 rifles, land mines and Stinger missiles on behalf of the group.

In all, 11 people have been charged in the alleged plot. But the frailty of some defendants kept them out of court. Chong Yang Thao, 53, was hospitalized this week after a possible stroke. Another defendant, Seng Vue, 68, collapsed just minutes into the hearing and had to be rushed to a medical center, where he was kept for observation.

The judge's bail decisions, carried out over the course of a seamless series of hearings that stretched into the early evening, came after several hours of jousting between Keker and prosecutor Robert Twiss over the intent of the plot reputedly hatched by Vang Pao and his comrades.

Keker portrayed the suspects as planning a hapless military operation -- one they thought would gain the support of the CIA and which was meant only to help the Hmong in Laos avoid persecution.

Though the episode might seem something like "a John le Carre novel," Keker said, it was "a fantasy" that never approached a full-blown coup. He said the federal undercover agent talked "like a man who had an inside channel to the CIA" and helped steer many of the conversations -- introducing, for instance, the idea of the group buying Stinger missiles.

"The notion we're dealing with some sort of Laotian Al Qaeda strikes me as absurd," he said.

Twiss, however, argued that the defense's attempts to suggest that the CIA might play a role amounted to a "total and complete fabrication."

He described how the undercover agent took Jack and several other defendants on a post-lunch tour to see scores of assault rifles he had stowed in a recreational vehicle parked in downtown Sacramento.

And during the arrests in early June, Twiss said, federal agents seized more than $200,000 in currency from the defendants' homes, enough money to purchase hundreds of AK-47s or perhaps even a missile.

"These are not a few guys who can't rub a few nickels together," Twiss told the judge, later adding, "The point is, they were going to use those weapons in Laos to kill people."

The prosecutor noted that the government has been "taking lots of hits" because of the case. He said critics believe that because the defendants fought alongside the U.S. a generation ago, they deserve "immunity from all their crimes."

Twiss suggested that Vang Pao, whom prosecutors view as "the most dangerous defendant," could order the start of a Laotian insurgency or call for a hit on the undercover agent while out on bail. Drozd, however, said the intense publicity, and the defendants' crime-free backgrounds, made it unlikely.

He ordered each man held under house arrest with electronic monitoring and visits restricted to immediate family, with limited telephone calls and no access to cellphones or computers.

In addition, he said, defendants' bail was to be secured by family property that would be forfeited if they violated any terms of their release.

The judge is to continue hearings today and is expected to order the rest of the defendants released on bail.

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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