[JURIST] Human Rights Watch (HRW)[advocacy website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday called on Laos [HRW press release] to release leaders of the ethnic minority Hmong [materials] who were forcibly repatriated from Thailand and imprisoned in Laos for their roles in a June protest demonstration Thai refugee camp, denouncing the move for "confirm[ing] the fear many Hmong asylum seekers and refugees have expressed of being persecuted if returned to their native country." The detainees allegedly led the protest [HRW report], and over 800 of the protesters were subsequently deported to Laos. In addition to calling for the prisoners' release, HRW also asked Thailand to allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees [official website] to investigate claims of mistreatment towards the Hmong. Laos is a signatory of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights [text], which prohibits, among other things, arbitrary detention. Though Thailand has not signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees [text], which prohibits refoulement [CW backgrounder], HRW called the Thai repatriation efforts a "clear violation of international refugee law" and argued that customary international law creates an obligation to protect against repatriation that would jeopardize safety or freedom. AFP has more.
The Hmong have been engaged in conflict with the Laos government since the Vietnam War, during which they supported the US [DWB backgrounder, PDF]. Over 300,000 Hmong fled Laos to Thailand in the early 1970s, where several thousand still remain. In 2004, Thailand began forcibly repatriating [BBC report] Hmong refugees to Laos, where refugees reportedly fear reprisal. Some of the leaders arrested after the June protests were released after a three month detention, but five leaders are still missing.