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Laos pardons jailed Australian couple

CANBERRA, Australia -- Laos has given full pardon to an Australian couple released in October after languishing in jail for embezzlement, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said on Wednesday.

The couple, Kerry and Kay Danes will return to Brisbane on Friday, a spokesman for the lawyer told Reuters news agency.

Downer said they received the long-awaited pardon at a foreign ministry ceremony on Tuesday.

Kerry and Kay Danes have already been held in jail for seven months before being given a seven-year jail sentence in June for embezzlement, tax evasion and destruction of evidence in relation to the theft of $3.5 million of sapphires.

They were released on October 8, and have since been staying at the home of the Australian ambassador in the Laotian capital Vientiane.

"The Danes were advised they were free to leave Laos and welcome to return at any time if they wished," he said in a statement.

"I extend my very best wishes to Kerry and Kay and their family for the future. They have been through a very difficult time."

The couple were accused of being involved in the disappearance of almost 130 kg (286 lb) of sapphires from the Vientiane office of Gem Mining Lao Co, Laos's largest sapphire mine, where the couple worked.

They denied the charges and claimed they were merely caught up in a power play.

Kerry, 42, was arrested on December 22, while his 33-year-old wife, Kay, was arrested later that day while leaving the country.

Laotian authorities said she was carrying US$52,700 at the time, and accompanying her two children, aged seven and 11, who were released and later repatriated to Australia.

Goodwill gesture

A spokeswoman for the Danes' lawyer, Ted Tzovaras, told Reuters the couple was extremely happy with official pardon.

"They will arrive home in Brisbane on Friday after a long and frustrating wait, so they are very relieved," she told Reuters.

Ambassador Jonathan Thwaites also told Reuters the couple were boarding a Lao Aviation flight scheduled to leave at 0535 GMT for Ho Chi Min City and would fly on to Singapore.

Laotian lawmakers approved the pardon a week ago but the couple had to stay in the communist country until President Khamtay Siphandone signed it.

The case strained relations between Laos, one of Asia's poorest countries, and Australia, a major aid donor.

Laotian Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad said this month the pair were given an amnesty as a goodwill gesture to Canberra, although they would have to pay more than US$1 million in fines and compensation.

Downer said polite diplomatic pressure and the strength of ties between Australia and Laos had made the release possible.

Laos officials said the couple agreed to admit guilt as part of the release deal but Canberra maintains the Danes did not admit guilt, and that they only acknowledged they had been found guilty by the Laotian court.


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