A 20-year-old pregnant British woman accused of trafficking heroin in Laos may be spared the death penalty, after a government official reportedly said today that Laotian law prohibits executing pregnant convicts.
Samantha Orobator was arrested at Wattay International Airport in the Southeast Asian country Aug. 6, 2008, and charged with hiding 1.5 pounds of heroin in her luggage.
She has been held for the past nine months in Phongthong prison, where some believe she became pregnant.
"According to the Lao law, anyone who possesses over 500 grams (1.1 pounds) should be subject to death penalty," Laotian Foreign Ministry spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing told The Associated Press. "But there is another provision of criminal law ... that the death penalty will not apply to pregnant woman."
The circumstances around the pregnancy are unclear, and she does not yet have legal representation, even though her trial was supposed to start this week, British authorities have said.
"We have been pressing the Laos authorities to ensure that Samantha has good legal representation," said a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokeswoman who added that a vice consul is currently in Laos. "The British Government is opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances."
British authorities have not yet been able to confirm the provision regarding pregnant women and have been proceeding with the understanding that Orobator could face the death penalty if convicted, the spokeswoman said.
The British human rights group Reprieve flew a lawyer to Laos when authorities informed the group that Orobator's trial would start in 48 hours.
"Reprieve was supposed to have a meeting with Samantha today," spokeswoman Katherine Oshea told ABC News.
The meeting had been "scheduled last week in order to arrange for legal representation. That meeting was canceled by the Lao authorities, and we haven't heard why or been given any kind of reason," Oshea said.
Laos officials said they are working to get Orobator representation for the trial, which now is scheduled to start next week.
"It might take some time," Khenthong told the AP from the Laotian capital Vientiane, saying the government is compiling a list of lawyers, who must be Lao nationals, whom she could choose from and that the government would try to expedite the case.
"We are providing consular assistance and are paying close attention to her welfare," a spokesperson from the FCO office told ABC News.
British Embassy officials, including Australian Embassy officials who handle U.K. interests in Laos, as well as a doctor and diplomats, have visited Orobator at least 10 times since her arrest.
Laos is included on Amnesty International's list of countries that, despite retaining the death penalty, has not executed anyone in the past 10 years. The last execution in Laos was in 1989.
Will Pregnancy Save Samantha Orobator's Life?
"I am worried to death, terrified," Orobator's mother, Jane, told ABC from her home in Ireland. "My world is collapsing. I don't know where to turn to."
Orobator's mother first heard of the arrest from her sister, with whom Orobator has been living for the last several years. She said she thought it was a mistake and that someone else had used her daughter's passport.
"I didn't believe it because of the type of child I gave birth to," Orobator's mother said. "She is quiet ... a tiny, fragile girl."
Orobator's mother said she has been denied access to her daughter since her arrest.
"She is not alone," she said. "We love her. We can't wait for her to come back home."
Orobator's mother said she last spoke with her daughter, the oldest of four children, in July.
"She was very happy ... and chatty," her mother said, adding this was the first time the young woman had traveled outside the United Kingdom and Ireland since they lived in Nigeria during her childhood years.
Reports from former inmates at Phongthong prison say conditions there are dire.
"That prison is notoriously difficult in terms of conditions," Reprive's Oshea said. "There have been reports of abuse and even one death in that prison."
Reprieve's primary concerns are for a fair trial and for Orobator's health, Oshea said.
"For the last 72 hours, she's been facing the prospect of going on trial in a foreign country, where she doesn't speak the language and doesn't know the law, without any kind of legal representation -- and on trial for her life," she said.
According to the human rights group, there was a chance the government of Laos would consider a prisoner transfer agreement with the United Kingdom if the U.K. government agrees.
"That could benefit Samantha if she is convicted," Oshea said. "What we're primarily concerned with now is that she gets a fair trial, and the worry is that she's not going to get one. If she does have an innocence claim here, it deserves a hearing."