Lao breaks silence on detained Oz couple

2000-12-30 11:42

Sydney - An Australian couple detained without charge for a week in Vientiane is implicated in the disappearance of almost 130kg of sapphires, a senior Lao minister said on Saturday.

Kerry Danes, 42, a former member of Australia's Special Air Service, was seized in his Vientiane office by Lao secret police on December 23.

His wife Kay, 33, was arrested the same day with US$52 700 cash at the Laos-Thailand border by the head of the Lao secret police after a desperate bid to flee the country with her two children.

The children, Sarah,11, and Nathan,7, were released and returned to Australia on Christmas Day, aided by Australian consular staff.

There has been no word on Kerry Danes since his arrest, although his wife managed to phone her mother on Christmas Day with the message: "Mum, I think by tomorrow I'll be dead."

Australian consular officials have been granted limited access to the couple after pressure by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

In an interview with The Australian newspaper in Vientiane, Lao Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Phongsavath Boupha said his government was sensitive to Australia's concerns about the handling of the case and charges would be laid once an investigation was complete.

"We will do this as soon as possible," he said. "We will charge them straight after the investigation."

Under Lao law suspects can be held for up to 12 months before charges are laid.

Danes had been working as managing director of Lao Securicor, the firm in charge of shipping gems for the country's biggest sapphire mine, Gem Mining Lao (GML).

Since May, the government has been nationalising GML's assets on the grounds that its officers misappropriated funds, according to reports.

GML chief executive Bernie Jeppesen, who fled Laos in May claiming the government threatened him with jail, torture and execution, has a different story. He says a group of officials in Lao's Foreign Investment Management Council and "a bunch of foreign gangsters" are trying to gain control of the lucrative company.

He is preparing legal action in the US courts against the Laos government.

Phongsavath told the paper the authorities allege that their investigations of GML's affairs led them to believe that the company should have been holding a stockpile of 1.7 tonnes of raw gems, plus 127kg of rough sapphires in three bags and 265 cut and polished gems in a fourth bag.

But after an "ad hoc tribunal" gave orders for officials to take full control of GML a raid found the four bags missing.

Phongsavath said Danes did not have an adequate explanation. He also claimed the couple gave conflicting accounts of the US$52 700 found on Kay Danes.

Relatives of the couple have expressed grave concerns about their safety and a Thai legal expert on Saturday said they had good reason to be worried.

Sunait Phasook, who has advised the Thai military on Lao affairs, said the justice system was unpredictable and arbitrary.

"There don't need to be any acceptable grounds for the arrest of a person, and then the condition in this matter is very much dubious," he told ABC radio.

"Another thing is that the trial process and the investigation has never been open. On the contrary it is very much secretive."

Australian officials were due to see the couple later on Saturday and give them food, clothing and a list of doctors and lawyers.

"They will do whatever is possible to ensure they are treated fairly and without discrimination by the local judicial system," a foreign affairs official said here.

GML began mining in Bokeo province in 1997. The company is chaired by British hereditary peer Lord Rennel of Rodd. - Sapa-AFP