As a major all party conference delegation from the European Parliament headed to the the Lao capital Monday, human rights groups Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, FIDH and Human Rights Watch said that the encounter was a critical opportunity for the EU to make major demands on the Lao government regarding the disappearance of Sombath Somphone. Despite the Europeans’ persistence, the Lao authorities once again professed to have nothing to do with the activist’s disappearance more than ten months ago.
The regime has denied any knowledge of his whereabouts despite widespread international calls for cooperation in the ten month since he went missing, which many believe to be a result of his work to advance human rights in Laos. The Lao authorities’ potential involvement in Sombath’s disappearance has been compounded by their failure to conduct thorough investigations and their rejection of external assistance, including to analyze the original CCTV footage.
Werner Langen of Germany told Deutsche Presse-Agentur that his delegation told the Lao government that it was important for the country’s image to solve the case. However, he said, “We did not get any convincing answers’’ and promised to keep the pressure on.
The human rights groups believe that Sombath is a victim of enforced disappearance. He was last seen on December 15th 2012 in Vientiane at a police checkpoint. After he left his car to speak with police, his car was driven away. CCTV footage obtained by his family shows three men including Sombath then get into a truck with flashing lights, which drove away behind a motorcycle from which the passenger seemingly fired a gunshot into the air.
The organizations said that the EU should use all its leverage to ensure Sombath’s safe return as well as to ‘’urge the Lao government to answer the many outstanding questions around Sombath’s disappearance and to establish an independent commission, ideally with international involvement or support, to investigate the case.’’
The gathering today is of particular interest as Sombath was one of the organizers of a related event shortly before his disappearance – the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) – in October 2012, the country’s largest ever civil society event.
Sombath’s disappearance has focused international attention on the lack of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Laos, and has sent an intimidating message to the country’s already fragile civil society.
Under the framework of EU-Laos bilateral cooperation for 2007-2013, the EU has invested 105 million euros ($145 million US) in the developing nation
The groups also say that “In view of the Lao government’s recently expressed ambitions to join the UN Human Rights Council in 2016-2018, Sombath’s enforced disappearance represents a key test of its commitment to promote and protect human rights. In the country demonstrating the fastest growth in Southeast Asia in 2012, the work of civil society, including individuals like Sombath, is critical in ensuring human rights are not sidelined during Laos’ rapid development.”
Bo Sondergaard, the vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Organized Crime, Corruption and Money Laundering, led a delegation in August to Vientiane to pursue Sombath’s whereabouts. The Danish member of Parliament said that the ”Lao regime is still in a state of denial” regarding Sombath’s disappearance. Furthermore, the delegation was frustrated that the Lao authorities did not show “adequate willingness or capacity to find a solution” to Sombath’s case.
It gets worse. During the visit, Lao officials denied that the person in the video was Sombath although experts and his family have identified him. “Even in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we were presented with this ridiculous lie that perhaps it was not Sombath in the pictures that were taken,” said Sondergaard.