Thousands of Hmong supporters rally outside Sacramento federal court

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

RENÉE C. BYER Hmong supporters chant, "Justice, justice, justice," Monday outside U.S. District Court; 12 defendants are accused of plotting the overthrow of Laos' communist regime.

As often has been true in the case of 12 men accused of plotting an overthrow of the government in communist Laos, what was going on Monday outside Sacramento's federal courthouse was more scintillating than the proceedings in court.

Throughout the morning, more than 3,000 men, women and children of Hmong descent engaged in a spirited but orderly demonstration in front of the courthouse to show their support for the defendants, 11 of whom are of Hmong heritage.

Inside it was routine business as a phalanx of lawyers talked with U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. about dates to file pleadings.

The federal indictment accuses the group of conspiring to mobilize an insurgent force with the aim of transforming Laos into an American-style democracy. The prosecution contends that the men were planning to arm Hmong people in Laos for a revolt against the country's communist rulers.

All 12 defendants have pleaded not guilty, and the defense argues that the whole case is a concoction by ATF agents and federal prosecutors.

The Hmong, a Laotian mountain people, fought a CIA-sponsored war for 14 years against communist infiltration into South Vietnam and Laos. When those countries fell to the communists in 1975, tens of thousands of Hmong made their way to the United States by way of refugee camps in Thailand.

For those marching outside the federal courthouse Monday, the case unfolding inside marks a betrayal of the debt they feel the United States owes the Hmong for those years of loyalty and sacrifice alongside American forces.

The crowd of young and old chanted, "What do we want? Justice! What do we want? Case dismissed!" They waved American flags and signs that read, "Gunslinger 'Steve' ATF Agent," a reference to the undercover firearms agent who executed a sting operation that led to the charges.

The highlight of the demonstration was a passionate speech by Song Vang, a daughter of defendant Youa True Vang. Her father was a colonel in the guerrilla army commanded by storied Maj. Gen. Vang Pao, who himself was a defendant until the government dropped its charges against him last year.

Born in Xieng Khuan province in northern Laos, Youa True Vang, now 74, was recruited at age 25 by the CIA in 1961, Song Vang told the crowd.

"He assisted in guarding radar towers, disrupting supply routes along the Ho Chi Minh Trail" that ran from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong fighting in the south, said Song Vang, 51, who came from Minnesota to speak at the rally.

"Then the CIA put him in charge of a special battalion whose main purpose was rescuing American pilots shot down," she said. "He saved many U.S. lives and lost many men."

She went on to tell of her father's life after he settled in Fresno, where she said he became a political activist. He served as president of a Lao community organization and raised money for survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Song Vang said.

"He lived by John F. Kennedy's credo, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,' " she said. "He was willing to risk his life for this principle before he even set foot on this continent. The Hmong are good U.S. citizens."

Meanwhile on the 15th floor, lawyers and Damrell agreed to reconvene next fall for arguments on defense motions.

It is anticipated that the defense will renew an earlier motion to dismiss the case and, failing that, will move to suppress the evidence. Both motions would be based largely on the conduct of the undercover agent, who posed as an arms dealer eager to sell weapons to the defendants.

James Brosnahan, a legendary San Francisco lawyer who did most of the talking for the defense, told Damrell that he and his colleagues still do not have all the material they want from the government.

He said there is a "warehouse of material," and the defense has asked prosecutors for an "inventory of what they have in there" to help locate and index relevant evidence. So far, he said, that has not been forthcoming.

Lead prosecutor S. Robert Tice-Raskin responded that "there is no item-by-item inventory," and the government has met its legal obligation to make the material "available for inspection and copying."

Tice-Raskin said the prosecution has produced 86,000 pages of documents and hundreds of recordings of electronically intercepted conversations, many of them not in English.

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