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Charges against Hmong ex-pats and a U.S. Army officer dismissed

Case ends a week after the death of Gen. Vang Pao, once accused of leading a coup attempt.

January 11, 2011|By Nardine Saad, Los Angeles Times

Federal prosecutors in Sacramento dropped charges on Monday against 11 Hmong expatriates and a former U.S. Army officer accused of plotting to violently overthrow the Laotian government, ending a 3 1/2-year legal saga that attracted international attention.

The decision was announced a week after the death of Gen. Vang Pao, 81, a revered Hmong leader who was a key U.S. ally during the Vietnam War. Pao was initially accused of being the ringleader of a coup attempt, but charges against him were dropped in 2009.

In November, the prosecution was dealt a serious setback when a judge dismissed the main charge, that the defendants violated the Neutrality Act, which prohibits people in the U.S. from attempting to overthrow nations at peace with the U.S. Defense attorneys called the charge "the crux of the case."

"Based on the totality of the circumstances in the case, the government believes, as a discretionary matter, that continued prosecution of defendants is no longer warranted," prosecutors stated in court documents filed Monday.

The dismissal, which was approved by U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., was celebrated among members of the Hmong community, who were somberly awaiting Pao's funeral and routinely rallied for the defendants at court proceedings.

"This was the only cloud that hung over the community in terms of us being in the U.S.," said Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong, the first Hmong elected to public office in California, which has the largest Hmong population in the U.S. "We're definitely happy that we could move forward from this and move on to the general's funeral service."

When prosecutors filed the case in 2007, they alleged that the men were intent on overthrowing the Laotian Communist government by force in a plan called Operation Popcorn. Prosecutors said the men were seeking to raise $10 million to acquire powerful weapons and recruit special-operations mercenaries to help destroy government buildings in the capital city, Vientiane.

Defense attorneys, however, accused the government of basing the case on the lies and omissions of an undercover agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"This is the government's way of creating and making a terrorist case," said federal public defender Daniel J. Broderick, who represented Harrison Ulrich Jack, a Vietnam veteran and former lieutenant colonel with the California National Guard. "The government went way over the top."

Broderick said the agent approached his client "out of the blue" and told him he could provide weapons to the Hmong people in the mountains of Laos to defend themselves against an order for their genocide by the Laotian government.

Jack, the only defendant who was not Hmong, was told by the agent "that it was not about taking over the country or hurting somebody. It was just to allow the Hmong people to protect themselves," Broderick said.

Mark J. Reichel, lead counsel for Lo Cha Thao, called the government's behavior "an embarrassment." He said that a "rogue ATF agent" spoke to his client on hundreds of occasions and led him to believe he was a CIA agent, in essence entrapping him.

"These people's lives were ruined," Reichel said. "It's long overdue, and [the government] owes these people an apology."

U.S. Atty. Benjamin Wagner, who sought the dismissal, rejected allegations of government misconduct.

"I believe the case was investigated and prosecuted properly and professionally," Wagner said in a statement. "The decision to seek dismissal of this case was not the result of any alleged misconduct by any government employee. The agents and attorneys who worked on this case have done so with honor and good faith."

During the Vietnam War, thousands of the Laotian hill people under the leadership of 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.

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