(AP) - Seven U.S. senators, including all four from Minnesota and Wisconsin, want Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to look into Thailand's repatriation of more than 800 ethnic Hmong to Laos.
The senators say they are concerned that Thailand repatriated the Hmong on Sunday without independent parties monitoring the process. They urge Rice in a letter sent this week to press Thailand to meet United Nations and basic human rights standards.
"The circumstances surrounding the repatriation are unclear," the senators wrote. "We strongly urge you make every effort to obtain a comprehensive understanding of what occurred during the repatriation process."
The senators say they're concerned that some of the refugees may face persecution in communist Laos.
“It is likely that some of the group were coerced into returning. Some are at risk of torture.”Amnesty International
The Hmong, an ethnic group from Laos, fought alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Many settled in the U.S. after the war, primarily in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California.
The letter was signed by Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Barbara Boxer of California, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Coleman is a Republican; the other six are Democrats.
"I am disturbed by the recent actions taken by the government of Thailand that have resulted in the repatriation of over 800 Hmong to Laos, and I am concerned they will face persecution," Coleman said. "This mass repatriation took place without a transparent process in place and causes me to question whether this group of Hmong returned voluntarily."
Human rights groups said Thursday that the repatriation may have included some who were sent back involuntarily in violation of international humanitarian standards. All 837 were believed to have fled their homeland in recent years.
The Thai government says the 837 Hmong were among thousands who have been demonstrating since last month at a makeshift camp in Thailand's Phetchabun province.
They were protesting their situation at the camp, which holds an estimated 8,000 Hmong from Laos, and a repatriation agreement between Bangkok and Laos.
Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat said more than 800 people returned to Laos voluntarily. But the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders said it believed most of the 800 had been forced to return to Laos.
Like the senators, the group raised concerns about the lack of access for independent parties to monitor the process.
Amnesty International said in a prepared statement: "No independent monitors were present, and it is likely that some of the group were coerced into returning. Some are at risk of torture."
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that "the international community, including the United States, has been concerned about Hmong in detention in Thailand for a long time. We're working to consider appropriate solutions."
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