Human rights groups and the wife of a prominent civil rights leader who disappeared nearly three years ago have called on the Lao government to adequately investigate the incident and provide information about the case’s progress.
Sombath Somphone went missing on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint in the capital Vientiane. He was transferred to another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
Although authorities have denied any responsibility, Sombath’s abduction is widely acknowledged to be an enforced disappearance.
On Sunday — the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances — Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui-Meng, urged Lao authorities to inform her of their progress in the investigation.
“The authorities always say they are investigating, but always without clear answers,” she told RFA’s Lao Service. “I appeal to the government to have pity on my suffering and honestly give me the investigation results.”
She added that governments and state agencies should not commit enforced disappearances.
“It is a crime and a violation of a person’s rights,” she said.
Rights groups believe that government-linked organizations or criminal elements abducted Sombath, who received the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership — Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize — for his work in the fields of education and development.
Lao officials have yet to state a reason for his disappearance or make any progress in the case, which has drawn criticism from European and U.S. development partners and aid donors, as well as attention from the United Nations.
Call to ratify convention
On Sunday, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) called on Laos to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), which it had signed seven years ago, adding that the government has failed to adequately investigate numerous cases of enforced disappearances, including Sombath’s.
“The Lao government has done very little to show its willingness [to investigate] and to show it has adequately investigated the case of Sombath Somphone,” said Andrea Giorgetta, director of the organization’s Asia desk.
Countries that sign the convention have a legal obligation to investigate all cases of enforced disappearances and deliver justice to the victims and their families.
The FIDH urged member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to step up their ratification of the ICPPED.
It noted that between 1980 and 2014, the U.N’s Commission on Human Rights’ Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances transferred 1,065 cases of such disappearances to eight of the 10 current ASEAN member states, although 82 percent still remain unresolved.
Cambodia is the only ASEAN member state that has become a party to ICPPED. Three other countries — Laos, Indonesia, and Thailand — have signed, but have yet to ratify the convention.
Laos signed the convention in September 2008, but the government has since failed to adequately investigate numerous cases of enforced disappearances, the FIDH said.
“Over the last seven years, [Laos] has not properly investigated any case of enforced disappearances,” Giorgetta told RFA.
The Lao government usually says that it has neither the capacity to train officials to handle such investigations nor a system in place to ensure compliance with the convention’s provisions, he said.
But given the level of development aid that Laos has received from donor countries during the last seven years, the government should have been able to make its judicial system complaint, Giorgetta added.
Campaign of intimidation
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at New York-based Human Rights Watch, also issued a statement, saying Laotians should use the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances to demand that the government finally reveal what it has done to Sombath.
“But, of course, they are too afraid of the government to do so because it would be like asking for a prison sentence or something worse,” he said.
He went on to say that Vientiane's leaders are continuing their campaign of intimidation to silence anyone who has information about Sombath and his whereabouts.
“The sad thing is that Laos' action to forcibly disappear Sombath and then cover up their deed with bad lies shows a total disrespect for the open and participatory way that Sombath believed community development should happen,” Robertson said. “And their campaign of fear has shut down so much of the civil society activity that Sombath hoped would help build Laos to its full potential.”
Robertson also said the political insecurity of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party leaders had led them to see Sombath as a threat “when all he wanted to do was ensure that people could participate in and contribute to improving their lives through development.”
Laos had offered no new information about Sombath when his case was brought up in January during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
The country previously had rejected offers of international assistance with the investigation into Sombath's disappearance, including one by the United States to provide technical help with enhancing the quality of blurry images of the surveillance video footage shot when the activist disappeared.
Giorgetta said Laos recently signaled to the international community that it was willing to accept some assistance, but so far has taken no steps in that direction.
“It’s imperative that the Lao government finally accept international assistance to step up its efforts on this investigation,” he said.
Reported by Somnet Inthapannha for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.