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Swiss NGO director expelled from Laos for criticising government

(SEAPA/IFEX) - 11 December 2012 - The Lao People's Democratic Republic on Friday 7 December expelled an expatriate development worker for criticizing the government in a letter to donors.

Anne-Sophie Gindroz , country director of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in Laos, was ordered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to leave the country within 48 hours of a notice dated 7 December 2012. Gindroz, who headed the Laos unit of the international NGO supporting agricultural development, was accused of violating a Decree on International Non-Governmental Organizations obliging foreign aid workers to respect the laws of the country.

The order to expel Gindroz apparently stemmed from a 21 November letter she wrote to participants of the Round Table Implementation Meeting (RTIM) discussing official development assistance and aid effectiveness in Laos. In the said letter, Gindroz asked participants to the meeting to consider the selective participation of local and international civil society groups to the RTIM, which was held on 23 November.

Local NGOs, registered officially as 'non-profit associations' (NPAs), participated for the first time in the RTIM this year, but according to Gindroz, 'participants from civil society have been carefully selected and are not those that the NPAs had chosen themselves as representatives to speak on their behalf.' 'Only 1 of the 5 NPAs pre-selected by the MoHA [or Ministry of Home Affairs, to attend the RTIM] is in fact non-governmental,' she wrote, adding that international NGOS invited to the meetings have been 'decreasing year by year'.

Her letter also described the severe challenges faced by local and international NGOs, who face the government's 'strategy of imposing silence' because of constraints on media freedom, and the rule of law.

Gindroz said that those who raise critical voices or use the legal framework to fight for their rights are often accused of opposing the government. Gindroz's expulsion was relayed through a letter to the executive director of Helvetas in Switzerland, in which she was accused of conducting a 'prejudicial anti-Lao Government campaign'.

The MFA letter however clarified that the action was not 'being directed against Helvetas as a whole' and requested the organisation to send a new country director to continue its work.

Gindroz left the country on Saturday, 8 December.

In a letter to civil society colleagues, Gindroz said, "I have no regret about what I have said, done or written. And I will continue to have my convictions and use my freedom to defend the freedom of others."

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