Hmong Leader Held on Coup Charges
Monday, June 11, 2007; 11:26 PM
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Hundreds of a Hmong leader's supporters demonstrated outside a federal courthouse Monday as a magistrate refused to release him on bail while he awaits trial on charges of trying to overthrow the communist government of Laos.
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, accused of trying to arrange the coup through an arms broker who turned out to be an undercover federal agent.
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. Court security officials estimated that 500 to 1,000 Hmong showed up.
Most of the Hmong were dressed in white to show their peacefulness and purity, said Ka Va, who helped organize the rally.
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 federal prosecutor from 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 is convicted.
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.