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Hmong want leader freed

Thousands demonstrate against the jailing of a general who aided the U.S. in the Vietnam War.

June 19, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Thousands of Hmong took to the streets here Monday to protest the incarceration of a revered former military leader and 10 other men accused of plotting the armed overthrow of the communist regime in Laos.

Throngs of older expatriates from the war-torn Southeast Asian nation and their U.S.-reared offspring rallied in front of the state Capitol and later ringed the federal courthouse, where Laotian Gen. Vang Pao and his alleged accomplices pleaded not guilty to a five-count indictment.

The daylong demonstration -- complete with placards bearing the general's likeness and shouts of "freedom" -- marked the third time since the arrests earlier this month that members of the Central Valley's large Hmong community have gathered here to protest a case they consider a betrayal.

During the Vietnam War, thousands of the Laotian hill people under the leadership of Vang Pao waged a stealthy war against communist forces with U.S. help. Historians credit the Hmong effort with slowing the military march of North Vietnam and saving the lives of thousands of U.S. military personnel.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, many Hmong fled their country's communist rulers, but thousands remain. In recent years, human rights groups have reported several cases of Hmong being captured, tortured and killed by Laotian forces.

Meanwhile, the U.S. retains diplomatic relations with Laos and continues to provide aid.

"We feel betrayed," Vaming Xiong, a Sacramento life insurance agent, said after the rally he helped organize. "We hope they dismiss these charges. What's the point to go to trial? The general is a hero."

Vang Pao, 77, and the others -- including several of his top associates and former West Point graduate and retired California National Guard Lt. Col. Harrison Jack -- are charged with conspiracy to violate the neutrality act and illegally export munitions as well as conspiracy to kill and maim citizens in a foreign land.

The general and eight other defendants are also accused of trying to purchase Stinger antiaircraft missiles.

Prosecutors allege in court papers that Vang Pao and the others were attempting to unleash a mercenary force armed with AK-47 and M-16 automatic rifles, missiles, Claymore mines, antitank rockets, C-4 explosives and other munitions to topple the Laotian government and reduce buildings in the capital city of Vientiane to rubble.

In a perfunctory 30-minute hearing, Vang Pao and the others sat quietly, hands and feet manacled, while Magistrate Dale A. Drozd read the charges and a courtroom full of attorneys took turns pleading not guilty on behalf of their clients.

Outside the courthouse, several of the defense attorneys proclaimed that they would wage an aggressive fight against charges they consider unjust.

"We look forward to proving him innocent," said John Balazs, Vang Pao's lawyer.

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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