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Charges against California Hmong leader accused of plotting to overthrow Laos government are dropped [Updated]

September 18, 2009 | 11:55 am

http://img.timeinc.net/time/daily/2007/0708/postcard_laos_0823.jpg

The federal government has dropped charges against Vang Pao, the exiled Hmong leader charged two years ago with hatching a plot to overthrow the communist regime in his homeland of Laos.

A federal grand jury returned a sealed indictment that removes Vang Pao as a defendant but maintains or levels new charges against a dozen others, nearly all of them Hmong living in California’s Central Valley.

U.S. Atty. Lawrence Brown of Sacramento offered no specific explanation today for why the charges were dropped against Vang Pao but not the others.

But he said federal prosecutors have discretion to consider a person’s culpability, history and consequences of a conviction. 

Vang Pao, 79 and in poor health, has been living under house arrest at his home in Orange County since his release in 2007 several months after the charges were levied.

His arrest prompted outrage among Hmong who fled to the U.S. in the final days of the Vietnam War. With Vang Pao as their commander in chief, Hmong guerrillas helped the U.S. battle the North Vietnamese for more than a decade before the war’s end.

[Updated at 1:47 p.m.: At Vang Pao's Westminster home, the phone was ringing off the hook with calls from Hmong supporters across the country.

"We've been getting so many calls, we don't even have time to ask who they are," said Chi Vang, 24, Vang's youngest son. "His supporters can't wait to see him to celebrate this momentous occasion."

Vang said the news that the charges against his father were dropped brought a "huge sigh of relief. We are excited and relieved at the same time to get this behind us," Vang said. "We have been waiting for this moment for two years."

He said his father's arrest and the house arrest that followed had been difficult for the entire family, especially since everyone was subject to restrictions, such as no Internet access.

Vang Pao's living room is filled with portraits marking his storied life. A framed photo of himself in military dress from his younger days hangs in the middle of the wall. Next to it is a photo of Vang with a CIA officer taken overlooking the Hmong village of Long Cheng, the CIA headquarters in Laos during the Vietnam War. Portraits of the former Laotian king and other royalty in ornate gold frames hang nearby.]

-- Eric Bailey in Sacramento and My-Thuan Tran in Westminster

Photo: Supporters rally for Vang Pao in 2007 in Sacramento. Credit: Associated Press

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