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New prison to house criminals from Laos’ Chinese-run special economic zone

People convicted of crimes in the Chinese-run Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in northern Laos, a hotbed of human trafficking and smuggling, will soon serve their sentences in a new prison built by the zone as a gift to its host province.

Lao authorities have complained that they cannot easily enter the zone, which operates largely beyond the reach of Lao laws, creating friction with locals.

In a ceremony on June 16, the deputy of the zone’s board of directors, Cheng Yu Feng, gave control of the new facility to Bokeo province’s Department of Public Security.

“It will be used within the zone. If there are any criminals [in the SEZ] they will be sent to this prison,” she told RFA’s Lao Service on Friday.

An official from the security department, who requested not to be named, told RFA that the prison will be used as soon as the facilities are ready.

“As of now, the building is not ready yet, and the relevant authorities are discussing how to transfer prisoners there, and how the security system will work,” the official said.

The official was unable to comment on how many prisoners are in the zone or where they are being held.

Nearby villagers told RFA that the prison is built about three kilometers (1.86 miles) away from the SEZ in Mouangkham village.

“Most of the crimes in the zone, as I have observed, are those cases related to human trafficking,” a villager told RFA. “The criminals include Thai, Burmese and Lao citizens in the casino and some of them work as online scammers who chat with victims on social media platforms.”

Most of the victims have been Lao nationals lured by middlemen to perform jobs as scammers trying to convince people to invest or buy shares in the Kings Romans Casino. When they couldn’t meet their sales quotas, they were detained against their will, and in some cases sold off to work in the sex industry.

The new prison will replace a much smaller one within the zone, another villager told RFA.

“There was a three-room prison before this bigger newly built prison,” the villager said. “The former one was located near the road to Bokeo International airport. The old prison also belongs to the zone.”

A lawyer told RFA that the prison must be managed by the Ministry of Public Security under Lao laws.

“Any Lao law breaker can only be punished by Lao police and officials,” the lawyer said.

Lao citizens and foreigners who work in the SEZ also must be tried under Lao laws, the lawyer said.

The Golden Triangle SEZ is run by Zhao Wei, chairman of the Dok Ngiew Kham Group, with Zhao’s firm holding 80 percent interest and the Lao government holding 20 percent.

Located where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, the Golden Triangle area got its name five decades ago for its central role in heroin production and trafficking.

In 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department declared Zhao Wei’s business network, centered on Kings Romans Casino, a “transnational criminal organization” and sanctioned Zhao and three other individuals and companies across Laos, Thailand and Hong Kong.

Zhao’s business “exploits this region by engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery and wildlife trafficking, much of which is facilitated through the Kings Romans Casino located within the [Golden Triangle] SEZ,” a Treasury statement said.

The State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report said Laos had increased its efforts to combat trafficking, but fell short in victim identification and screening procedures, and failed to adequately investigate suspected perpetrators of sex trafficking.

According to the information from the SEZ board, the new 900 square-meter prison was built in October 2021. It was originally scheduled to be completed in May.

There are 30 rooms within the prison, six of which are offices for prison staff. RFA was not able to determine the prisoner capacity of the facility.

The new facility was funded and constructed by a Chinese company with the total cost of around 11.37 billion kip (U.S. $764,000).

Translated by Phouvong, Written in English by Eugene Whong.