Central Valley

Hmong case back in court

For the first time in more than nine months, the case against 10 Hmong and a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Woodland was back in Sacramento federal court Wednesday for a status conference.

Not since bail hearings over two days in mid-July has there been an in-court proceeding in the prosecution of the 11 men on charges they were plotting the violent overthrow of the communist government in Laos.

And the pace has not picked up.

In a discussion that lasted barely five minutes, it was agreed that the impressive array of legal talent will next assemble before U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. on Dec. 3.

The next court date is expected to be sometime in November, when U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd will hear arguments on motions related to information sought by defense lawyers about their clients that may be in the files of U.S. intelligence agencies.

This includes contacts their clients may have had with the government regarding their wish that something be done for Hmong still hiding in the jungles of Laos who are allegedly hunted and killed by the communist regime.

One of the areas of interest to the defense is whether the government has intercepted electronic communication between Hmong in the United States and those in the Laotian jungles. The lawyers would ask that the content of any such intercepts be handed over to them.

Speaking for the defense team, attorney John Keker told Damrell that he and his colleagues expect to file these discovery motions "about Labor Day."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Twiss said after the hearing that some of the information the defense could ask for "may not exist." Other information "may not be discoverable," either because it is not relevant to the case or is classified, he said.

Defense lawyers have been poring over more than 36,000 pages of material turned over to them by prosecutors.

In addition, a federal agent's four months of undercover work as a weapons dealer ready to arm would-be insurgent Hmong in Laos and Thailand produced 250 audio files of recorded meetings and phone calls and more than 20 DVDs with video recordings of meetings. All of this is now in the hands of the defense team and is being transcribed and studied.

The defense lawyers have also been identifying and interviewing potential witnesses and developing a strategy.

While the courtroom was packed with Hmong spectators, only a few of the defendants were there.

Others have waived their right to be at most proceedings. They are all free on bail, but trips outside the judicial districts in which they reside must be approved by officers of the court.

Since the case was disclosed publicly in June, there has been a groundswell of support for the defendants among Vietnam veterans, who regard one of those charged, Gen. Vang Pao, and his followers as heroes of the war they fought.

Vang, now 78, was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1961 to lead a secret army of Hmong soldiers against the North Vietnamese.

For the next 14 years, until the communists came to power in Laos, Vang and his troops disrupted movement on the Ho Chi Minh trail, the Viet Cong supply line to the south that traversed Laos; flew combat missions as back-seat spotters; raced enemy forces through jungles and over mountains to get to downed U.S. pilots first; and guarded a top-secret radar installation that the Air Force needed in its bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

Some of the defendants fought under Vang's command.

Hmong families and loved ones who didn't make it out of Laos after the war are hunted and killed by the current regime, according to reports by journalists, documentary filmmakers and international human rights organizations.

There are other reports that nearly 8,000 Hmong political refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand are to be involuntarily repatriated.

Lao and Thai officials continuously deny that there is any Lao military campaign against Hmong jungle groups.