It sounds like the plot of a bad movie. A young British woman goes on holiday to Laos, a landlocked Southeast Asian nation that's a favorite of backpackers enchanted by its laid-back vibe and vibrant Buddhist culture. But she lands in jail on drug-smuggling charges that could result in execution. Then events take a melodramatic turn: the woman becomes pregnant while in jail and a Laotian state newspaper claims she impregnated herself with semen from a fellow prisoner to escape the death penalty, since local law precludes putting expectant mothers in front of a firing squad.
On June 3 in Laos' capital, Vientiane, Samantha Orobator, 20, was handed a life sentence on a heroin-trafficking conviction, the final twist in a case that has drawn attention to a country that, despite its growing tourist appeal, is repressively ruled by one of the world's last socialist cliques. Although Orobator was arrested last August, she was for months denied any legal representation. Her trial was conducted behind closed doors, and Amnesty International said the British woman's case "highlights a justice system shrouded in secrecy." (See pictures of Mexico's drug tunnels.)
Because of a prisoner-transfer agreement signed last month between Britain and Laos, Orobator may be able to serve her sentence back home instead of in one of Laos' notoriously decrepit prisons. Previous foreign inmates in Laos have complained of torture, inadequate food and routine overcrowding of cells.
Orobator has denied the charges of attempted transport of 680 grams of heroin through Vientiane's international airport last year. She maintains that she has no idea how the drugs found their way into her possession. The backpacker trail in Southeast Asia is rife with rumors of regional airport officials sneaking drugs into unsuspecting travelers' bags in exchange for bribes, but the veracity of such tales is hard to prove. (Read "Burma's Opium Production Back on Rise.")
Desperately poor, Laos abuts the Golden Triangle, a notorious opium-growing region. One of Laos' more furtive tourist attractions, despite attempts to crack down on the drug trade, is pizza and other Western foods laced with marijuana or other drugs. In some backpacker cafés, for instance, so-called happy food gets its kick from illicit materials. At the same time, drug convictions in Laos warrant heavy punishments, with the death penalty applicable for cases involving more than 500 grams of heroin. (However, the Laotian government says no one has been executed on such a drug conviction since 1989.) With Orobator's sentencing, perhaps the pizzas in Laos will taste a little less happy in the future.