(New York) – Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith should immediately disclose the fate of prominent activist Sombath Somphone, who has been forcibly disappeared in Vientiane since December 2012, Human Rights Watch said.

Since taking office on April 20, 2016, Prime Minister Thongloun has stayed silent on Sombath’s disappearance, among the country’s most serious human rights cases in recent years. Official investigations of the case have been rudimentary and inadequate, and failed to offer any credible explanation of his fate or whereabouts. Lao authorities have repeatedly disregarded concerns raised by foreign governments and human rights groups.

“Sombath Somphone’s case is a major test for Prime Minister Thongloun’s new government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The prime minister should end Lao’s long silence on Sombath’s ‘disappearance’ and explain what happened to him, instead of trying to deflect international criticisms and concerns.”

Sombath Somphone, a prominent Lao activist, has been forcibly disappeared in Vientiane since December 2012. 

© 2013 Stephen Sautter

Sombath, the 60-year-old founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre, received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005. Security camera footage shows police stopping Sombath’s jeep at 6:03 p.m. on December 15, 2012, and unidentified men taking him into the Thadeua police post. Shortly afterward, 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. The authorities later denied any knowledge of Sombath taken into custody. He has not been seen since.

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 international law, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution. Disappearances are a continuing offense that cause anguish and suffering for the victim’s family members.

“The Lao government should understand that Sombath’s case is not going to go away,” Adams said. “Donor governments and organizations will raise concerns about this highly regarded activist until the Lao government provides answers about his fate.”