The Lao government should urgently investigate the feared forced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a prominent social activist, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today. He was last seen on December 15th 2012 in Vientiane, the Lao capital. Circumstances surrounding the case, including security camera footage, indicate that Lao authorities took him into custody, raising concerns for his safety as well as increasing questions about whether he was kidnapped by police.
Sombath, 60, is founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Laos. He is widely respected in the field of education and development not only in his home country, but also across Asia. As a result of his work, Sombath received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, one of Asia’s top civil honors, in 2005 in recognition of his efforts to promote sustainable development.
“The Lao government needs to immediately reveal Sombath’s location and release him,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. “Lao authorities should come clean on the enforced disappearance of this prominent social leader and take steps to stem the deepening climate of fear his disappearance has caused,” he added.
Laos is one of the world’s poorest nations in the world. According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Sombath Somphone’s early life took place amid uncertainty and turbulence as Laos was swept into the Indochina War. He eventually escaped this by winning a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, where he earned degrees in education and agriculture. In 1980 Sombath returned to Laos and that same year helped launch the Rice-Based Integrated Farm System project, to help Laotian farmers achieve food security. The ensuing years exposed him intimately to the world of rural Laos and to the complex obstacles awaiting development workers in its remote scattered villages.
Drawing on these lessons, Sombath founded PADETC in 1996 to foster sustainable, equitable, and self-reliant development in Lao PDR. Sombath has led it to emphasize eco-friendly technologies and micro-enterprises and to enhance education by introducing fuel-efficient stoves, promoting locally-produced organic fertilizer, devising new processing techniques and marketing strategies for small businesses, initiating garbage recycling in the capital city, and organizing extra curricular programs for the youth.
Sombath was last seen by his wife, Ng Shui Meng, on December 15th as they were driving separately back from his office to their home for dinner. Sombath’s jeep was following his wife’s car at around 6 p.m. near the police post on Thadeua Road in Vientiane. Shortly after that, Shui Meng lost sight of his jeep, and he never arrived at their house. She called his mobile phone many times and heard a recording, indicating that his phone was switched off. On the morning of December 16th, Shui Meng reported him missing to local authorities and to the police, and searched for him in vain in all of Vientiane’s hospitals.
On December 17th, Shui Meng went to the Vientiane Municipality Police Station and asked to review the December 15th security camera footage taken around 6 p.m., at the spot where Sombath was last seen.
The video footage, which HRW viewed, showed that Sombath’s jeep was stopped by police at the Thadeua police post at 6:03 p.m. Then Sombath was taken 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. Later another truck with flashing lights came and stopped at the police post. Two people got out of the truck, took Sombath into the vehicle, and then drove off.
HRW is concerned that Sombath has been taken into custody by Lao authorities, and that he could be at serious risk of ill treatment. Despite numerous appeals by his family, diplomats, and international non-governmental organizations over five days, Lao authorities – including the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – have not provided information regarding Sombath’s safety or his whereabouts.
On December 19th, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement confirming the incidents as recorded on the security camera, without explaining why police at the scene did not take any action to protect Sombath and stop what Lao authorities claimed to be a “kidnap” driven by personal or business conflicts.
“The Lao authorities should recognize that Sombath’s years of development work have earned him important friends around the world, and that the clamor for his release is not going to go away,” Adams said. “Instead of ignoring inquiries from his families, diplomats, and civil society, Lao authorities should immediately reveal his location and return him to his family.”
The Lao authorities should set in motion a prompt, credible and impartial investigation of Sombath’s enforced disappearance, and the appropriate prosecution of all those responsible, HRW said.
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 fate or whereabouts of the person, which places the person outside the protection of the law.
The organization says that Lao authorities should also take all necessary steps to end the practice of arbitrary arrests and secret detention, including making enforced disappearance a criminal offense and becoming a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
Consistent with international law, anyone detained by law enforcement and security forces must be held at recognized places of detention, be provided all due process rights including access to family and legal counsel, and be protected from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
“The Lao authorities should realize that the risk to their international reputation grows by leaps and bounds every day Sombath’s whereabouts remain unknown,” Adams said.