VIENTIANE, Laos — A court in Laos found a pregnant British woman guilty of trafficking heroin and sentenced her to life in prison Wednesday, a court official said.
The life sentence for 20-year-old Samantha Orobator came after a one-day trial in the Lao capital, according to Chanthaly Duangvilai, vice president of the Vientiane Court.
Orobator pleaded guilty, the court official said at a press briefing after the trial, adding that she named several of her alleged accomplices in her testimony. She was the only defendant in the case.
Heroin trafficking is punishable by death, but she was spared because Lao law does not allow the execution of pregnant women, said Chanthaly.
Under a pact signed last month by Laos and Britain that still needs ratification, Orobator could be extradited to serve her time in Britain. Lao officials, however, could still veto her return.
Orobator had been jailed since last August, but her plight drew public attention only last month after the British legal charity Reprieve publicized her circumstances and what they believed was the possibility she could be executed by firing squad if found guilty.
The case attracted particular interest because Orobator became pregnant while incarcerated. Lao officials have asserted that she may have artificially inseminated herself while behind bars.
"We're relieved that the trial has taken place. We're hoping the British government will get her home as soon as possible for the health of her and her baby," said Katherine O'Shea, a Reprieve spokeswoman.
Orobator arrived in court wearing a blue prison outfit and smiling to reporters. She was escorted by female prison guards but was not in handcuffs or ankle chains.
Her mother also attended the trial by a three-judge panel, as did several British consular officials. Security around the courthouse was tight.
Her mother looked visibly distressed leaving court after the trial, but Orobator appeared calm.
"We are seeking access to Samantha to discuss her future options," said Daniel Painter, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Thailand who attended the trial. Britain does not maintain an embassy in Laos.
It is up to Orobator and her state-appointed lawyer to decide within 21 days whether to appeal the sentence and whether to apply for repatriation.
Police said they found 1.5 pounds (680 grams) of heroin in 68 capsules on Orobator's body when she was arrested at Vientiane airport on her way to Australia, though Reprieve said the drugs were found in her luggage.
After Reprieve voiced its concerns about the possibility of Orobator being executed, the Lao government confirmed that under the country's criminal law, a pregnant woman cannot receive the death penalty.
However, officials delayed her scheduled trial date in May because of questions about how she became pregnant.
According to Lao officials, Nigerian-born Orobator initially told authorities she was pregnant by her boyfriend in England, but tests after she was arrested showed no signs of pregnancy. It was not until March 2 that a hospital test showed she was pregnant, verified by a second test April 4, police said. That meant she must have gotten pregnant while in prison, they said.
Orobator's mother recently said her daughter had not been raped by prison officials or fellow prisoners, as some media had speculated.
The Vientiane Times on Tuesday quoted police as saying Orobator told authorities she secretly obtained sperm from a fellow prisoner to impregnate herself to avoid the death penalty. The state-run newspaper did not name the sources or give other details.
Orobator was in jail and so could not be reached to respond to the newspaper account.