(Bangkok) – The Lao government should immediately disclose the fate of prominent social activist Sombath Somphone, who was apprehended at a police checkpoint in Vientiane one year ago. The official investigation of his enforced disappearance on December 15, 2012 was inadequate, and the government has yet to offer a credible explanation of Sombath’s whereabouts.
“One year since Sombath Somphone ‘disappeared,’ the Lao government clearly hopes the world will just forget about what happened to one of its most prominent citizens,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign donors to the Lao government should make Sombath’s enforced disappearance a priority until he can return home.”
Security camera footage shows police stopping Sombath’s jeep at 6:03 p.m. on December 15, and unidentified men taking him into the Thadeua police post. Shortly after, an unidentified motorcyclist stopped at the police post and drove off with Sombath’s jeep, leaving his own motorcycle by the roadside. A few minutes later, a truck with flashing lights stopped at the police post. Two people got out of the truck, took Sombath into the vehicle, then drove off.
Lao authorities have repeatedly denied offers of technical assistance from governments around the world, including support for a detailed analysis of the video tape of Sombath being taken into custody.
Efforts by two European Parliament delegations, Vientiane-based diplomats, and visiting foreign ministry officials to raise Sombath’s case have failed to receive any substantive response from the government, Human Rights Watch said.
Shui Meng, Sombath’s wife, told journalists in Bangkok that “a wall of silence has fallen in Vientiane and the rest of Laos.”
Sombath is the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre in Laos. He is widely respected in the field of education and development both in Laos and across Asia. As a result of his work, Sombath received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, one of Asia’s top honors, in 2005.
Laos has signed, but not ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.
Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Laos is a party, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution.
“The Lao government needs to recognize that demands for Sombath’s return will not go away,” Robertson said. “The first anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance brings renewed urgency to uncover the truth and secure his freedom.”