Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Cabinet Secretariat, Government of Japan
1-6-1 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda-ku
CC: Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida
Re: Abduction of Activist in Laos
Dear Prime Minister Abe,
We are writing in advance of your meeting with the prime minister of Laos, Thongsing Thammavong, at the Japan-ASEAN Summit in Tokyo from December 13, 2013. We respectfully request that in your meeting with Prime Minister Thongsingthat you raise the case of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was abducted and forcibly disappeared in Vientiane on December 15, 2012. It is imperative that the Lao government immediately provide full information on Sombath’s whereabouts or fate. We believe that if you raise this case publicly, and make clear that it is a matter of serious concern for Japan and other international donors to Laos, it will send a strong message to the Lao leadership that urgent action on this case needs to be taken.
The upcoming Japan-ASEAN Summit, scheduled from December 13 to 15, falls on the one year anniversary of the abduction of Sombath, a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005. He was taken into custody in front of a police checkpoint in downtown Vientiane, and has not been seen since.
The facts of the case are as follows: Sombath Somphone was last seen by his wife, Ng Shui Meng, on the evening of December 15, 2012 as they were driving separately from his office to their home for dinner. Shui Meng lost sight of Sombath’s jeep at around 6 p.m. near the police post on Thadeua Road (Kilometer 3) in Vientiane.
Shui Meng obtained closed-circuit television (CCTV) from the police which shows that Sombath’s jeep was stopped by police at the Thadeua police post at 6:03 p.m. The police then took Sombath into the police post. Later, a motorcyclist stopped at the police post and drove off with Sombath’s jeep, leaving his own motorcycle by the roadside. Another truck with flashing lights then came and stopped at the police post. Two people got out of the truck, took Sombath into the vehicle, and then drove off.
Since Sombath’s disappearance, senior Lao officials have repeatedly denied having taken him into custody or provided other information on his situation. The failure of Lao authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into Sombath’s disappearance has heightened concerns about the Lao government’s involvement. The government has also rejected offers of external assistance from various governments, including offers to analyze the original CCTV footage to determine the identities of the individuals involved in Sombath’s abduction.
Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest, detention or abduction of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealing the fate or whereabouts of the person, placing the person outside the protection of the law. We ask that you remind Prime Minister Thongsingthat the Lao government is obligated under international human rights law to prevent and remedy any enforced disappearance. As one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to sign (though not yet ratify) the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in September 2008, Laos must refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of this treaty.
One year since Sombath’s enforced disappearance, the Lao government has failed to conduct a serious investigation. This is despite widespread regional and international calls for accountability, including from US Secretary of State John Kerry and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton.
We would welcome your global leadership in sending the message to the Lao government and other ASEAN member states that the protection against enforced disappearances is a concern not only of the respective government but of the broader international community. We appreciated your leadership in February 2007 in signing the Convention against Enforced Disappearance at the signing ceremony in Paris. Raising the Sombath case with Prime Minister Thongsingwould demonstrate your commitment to Japan’s “diplomacy based on the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and the rule of law.”
Japan’s public silence on the Sombath case sends precisely the wrong message to the Lao government, suggesting that its inaction is acceptable to Japan. This is damaging to Japan’s moral standing as a country that promotes rights, accountability, and the rule of law. As the biggest bilateral donor to Laos, Japan’s voice carries weight that cannot be overlooked by Lao’s leadership. Japanese development aid will only be effective when carried out with the assistance of civil society activists such as Sombath. His “disappearance” has raised serious concerns among development groups in Laos that those who raise unpleasant truths about the government may face retaliation.
In the absence of any immediate positive response to your concerns about the Sombath case, we would ask that you and other aid donors to Laos call for an independent commission, ideally with international involvement or support, to investigate the case.
We appreciate your support for raising the case of Sombath Somphone during your upcoming meeting with Prime Minister Thongsing, publicly highlighting the matter at the Japan-ASEAN summit meeting, and calling for an independent commission should the matter remain unresolved. Additionally, we hope you will work with other international donors to Laos to press the Lao government at future meetings and forums about Sombath’s case, making clear that the matter will not rest until full information is provided on Sombath’s whereabouts or fate, and that all those responsible for his enforced disappearance are brought to justice.
Thank you for your attention to our serious concerns about this case. We would be pleased to meet with you or your staff to discuss the matter further.
Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International Japan
Empowerment For All Japan
2 other organizations (names are not disclosed in order to ensure the security of their activities on the ground)