Charges against a former Hmong guerrilla leader accused of plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos have been dropped, according to US justice officials.
A spokesman for the United States Attorney's office in Sacramento, northern California said that all charges against ageing warlord Vang Pao, 79, had been dismissed.
Pao is a prominent figure in the Hmong community in the United States, a former general in the Royal Lao army in the 1960s and 1970s who fled to the United States in 1975 after communists ousted Laos' royal rulers. Former CIA Chief William Colby once called Pao "the biggest hero of the Vietnam War," for the 15 years he spent leading a CIA-sponsored guerilla army fighting against a communist takeover.
A statement said that while 12 other people will be prosecuted for attempting to overthrow the Laotian government, charges against the CIA-trained Pao had been dismissed as a "matter of discretion."
Ten of the 12 defendants had been charged in a 2007 indictment that named Gen. Vang Pao, as a ringleader in the plot.
Pao's lawyer John Keker said in a statement that Pao "was grateful and very happy the government has finally recognized his innocence."
"At the same time he's very distressed the case that we believe is an unfair government sting operation is proceeding against a number of fine people," Keker added.
The cases are largely based on a sting operation involving conversations in 2007 with an undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In those conversations, the defendants allegedly outlined a plan to provide the means and manpower for insurgents to bomb government buildings in the Laotian capital of Vientiane and shoot down Laotian military planes with Stinger missiles.
The goal, the new indictment says, was “to overthrow the government of Laos,” which remains a Communist state, although its relations with the US have thawed since the cold war ended.
The defendants are charged with violating the Neutrality Act, which prohibits Americans from interfering with foreign governments. They also are charged with conspiring to export weapons without a license from the US State Department, and conspiring to kill and maim people and damage property in a foreign country.
The defendants have argued that they were entrapped and believed they were being recruited by the US government to fight communists, as they had been during the Vietnam War.
US District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. said he was troubled by evidence suggesting that the undercover federal agent told the alleged conspirators the CIA would support a coup attempt.
U.S. Drops Case Against Exiled Hmong Leader, 18 September 2009,
Charges dropped against leader of alleged Laos coup plot, 18 September 2009,
Charges dropped against Laotian hero in Calif., 18 September 2009,