Former Laotian military general ordered held on coup allegations

Gen. Vang Pao
Former Hmong Gen. Vang Pao, on a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. in May 2000, marking the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The Lao veterans fought with U.S. forces against the North Vietnamese in Laos.
Photo by LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images

(AP) - Hundreds of supporters of Hmong leader Vang Pao demonstrated outside the federal courthouse Monday as a magistrate refused to release the former Laotian general on bail while he awaits trial on charges of trying to overthrow Laos' communist government.

Despite his age and deteriorating health, Vang Pao, 77, is too dangerous and too great a flight risk to be freed under any circumstances, U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund Brennan ruled after a 30-minute hearing.

Vang Pao and eight other Hmong elders were arrested June 4 on charges that they tried to buy nearly $10 million worth of military weapons and recruit mercenaries to unseat Laos's communist government.

A 10th defendant, retired California National Guard Lt. Col. Harrison Jack, is also charged in the case, accused of trying to arrange the coup through an arms broker who turned out to be an undercover federal agent.

"He is no threat to anyone, anywhere in the world. ... He is an American hero and a Hmong hero who has saved thousands of lives."

Hmong from across California and several other states packed the courtroom and filled a courthouse plaza and surrounding sidewalks for Vang Pao's detention hearing.

Most of the Hmong were dressed in white to show their peacefulness and purity, said Ka Va, who helped organize the rally.

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They waved American flags, giant portraits of Vang Pao, and signs calling for the release of the Vietnam War era general whose guerrillas rescued downed American pilots and waged an ultimately futile covert war orchestrated by the CIA.

"This is how much this man is loved," said Thomas Heffelfinger, one of Vang Pao's attorneys, said over the noise of the crowd. "This reflects the general's commitment to a peaceful agenda."

Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said he was hired by Vang Pao's supporters to assist John Balazs, the Sacramento attorney who was appointed by the court to represent the general last week.

Heffelfinger said Vang Pao is innocent of the charges, which could bring him life in prison if he's convicted.

The show of support by a crowd estimated at 500 to 1,000 Hmong by court security officials may have backfired, however.

Balazs argued that Vang Pao could safely be released to home confinement with a virtual communications blackout: No phones, computers or other communications devices.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Twiss told Brennan that Vang Pao's influence is so sweeping and unquestioned that he could organize his followers no matter what restrictions are imposed, perhaps sending messages through intermediaries or with a smuggled cell phone.

"Thousands of people came here on the day of his detention hearing," Twiss said in an interview. "If General Vang Pao were to pick up a cell phone, is there any doubt they wouldn't execute his order? To me, it (the rally) was an indication of his ability to effectuate action indirectly."

Vang Pao has foresworn violence and lobbied peacefully for the United States to protect Hmong still being persecuted in Laos, said Heffelfinger.

Moreover, the general has had heart bypass and gallbladder surgery, a stroke, and suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, he said.

"The mere fact that he has loyal followers does not make him dangerous," Heffelfinger said outside the courthouse. "The general is a man of peace."

Brennan nonetheless ordered Vang Pao detained. He also ordered the detention of two alleged coconspirators, Lo Thao and Nhia Vang, after brief separate hearings.

The general sat silently hunched over a table during the hearing, wearing a bright orange jail jumpsuit and listening through an interpreter.

Outside supporters waved signs reading, "Honor your war heroes - don't jail them," and "Free our leader."

"He is like a supreme leader to all of us," said Silas Cha of Fresno, a leader of Hmong-American Concerned Citizens, an organization he said stretches from Sacramento to Fresno. "He is no threat to anyone, anywhere in the world. ... He is an American hero and a Hmong hero who has saved thousands of lives."

U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott issued a statement saying his office respects the Hmong community's right to protest, but expects they "will understand why we made the decisions we did" once more information becomes public.

Attorneys for the accused said they expect their clients to be indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury. The charges they face now were in a complaint filed by Scott's office. Their next hearing is set for Monday, when supporters are promising an even larger crowd.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)