updated 6/17/2007 2:36:03 AM ET 2007-06-17T06:36:03

Ten people suspected of plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos pleaded not guilty Monday to conspiracy charges that could bring them life in prison.

Last week, a grand jury indicted Vang Pao, a 77-year-old former general in the Royal Army of Laos, and nine other members of California’s Hmong community. Also charged was Harrison Jack, a 60-year-old former Army Ranger who led covert operations and worked with Hmong fighters during the Vietnam War.

One of the alleged conspirators, Dang Vang, 48, of Fresno, was arraigned Friday and also pleaded not guilty. He did not appear in court Monday.

The charges continued reverberating throughout California’s Hmong community, which includes thousands who fled following the 1975 takeover of Laos by the communists.

On Monday, a crowd of up to 1,500 people demonstrated outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento and the state Capitol. Many Hmong said the U.S. government has not done enough to stop the persecution of Hmong in Laos and is turning on their leaders in the United States.

“This is a long story that has to be told from the beginning,” attorney William Portanova, who represents defendant Lo Thao, 53, of Sacramento, said outside the courthouse.

Besides Jack, Vang Pao and Lo Thao, the others arraigned Monday were Lo Cha Thao, 34, of Clovis; Youa True Vang, 60, of Sanger; Hue Vang, 39, of Fresno; Chong Yang Thao, 53, of Fresno; Seng Vue, 68, of Fresno; Chue Lo, 59, of Stockton; and Nhia Kao Vang, 48, of Rancho Cordova.

The indictment alleges that Chue Lo was among those present during a Feb. 7 meeting at a Thai restaurant in Sacramento. The alleged conspirators were meeting with a person they believed was a weapons broker but who actually was an undercover federal agent.

Truckload of weapons?
After leaving the restaurant, they examined a truckload of weapons that contained samples of AK-47s, M-16s, C-4 explosives, anti-tank rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and Claymore mines, according to the indictment.

Chue Lo’s attorney, Shari Rusk, argued that her client, should be released on bail because he simply attended two meetings as a clan leader.

She acknowledged that weapons were displayed at one of the meetings, but said Vang Pao was so influential that her client had no choice but to attend.

Magistrate Dale Drozd postponed a decision on whether Rusk’s client could be released.

Judges have refused to set bail during previous hearings, saying the defendants could be a flight risk or pose a danger to society.

All 11 are charged with conspiring to violate the Neutrality Act against a nation with which the United States is at peace; conspiracy to kill, kidnap and maim; conspiracy to possess firearms and destructive devices; and conspiracy to export munitions without a State Department license.

Federal prosecutors say the defendants intended to buy nearly $10 million worth of weapons. All except Seng Vue and Chue Lo also were charged with conspiracy to receive and possess Stinger missile systems designed to destroy an aircraft.

Earlier this year, Jack, a former California National Guard officer, sent an e-mail to friends suggesting the Lao government was planning mass killings of Hmong remaining in the country. That apparently was the genesis of the alleged overthrow plot.

On Monday, authorities in Bangkok arrested another Hmong American suspected of being an associate of Vang Pao near the Thai-Lao border. The man, identified as Sha Wang Lee, 53, carried a U.S. passport that expired on May 27, 2003, and listed his hometown as Fresno, Police Capt. Sitthinan Sithkamjorn said.

Sithkamjorn said he could not confirm the exact spelling of the arrested man’s name, but said he also carried a certificate signed by Vang Pao stating he had undergone military training. The suspect was being taken to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday to verify his identity and to determine whether the United States wanted him repatriated, Sithkamjorn said.

He said the suspect would be detained in Thailand for overstaying his visa if he was not deported to the United States.

Name off school
Also Monday, the school board in Madison, Wis., removed Vang Pao’s name from a new elementary school. Board members apologized to the Hmong community, but said they had to defuse dissension.

The board voted in April to name the school after Vang Pao, who was charged 12 days after Madison officials broke ground for the school.

The Hmong, a mountain people, helped U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Those who stayed behind after Laos fell to the communists have been subject to severe persecution, according to the U.S. State Department.

Many have fled to Thailand, where they live in refugee camps. Those who came to the United States are concentrated in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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