European parliamentarians have accused the Lao government of deceiving and lying to the international community about the mysterious disappearance of respected local civil society leader Sombath Somphone.
Lao authorities have not shown "adequate willingness or capacity to find a solution" to Sombath's case, according to the third European Parliament delegation that visited Laos this week to look into the "enforced disappearance" of the 60-year-old activist.
Sombath was last seen in a police video footage being stopped in his vehicle at a police checkpoint in the Lao capital Vientiane eight months ago. He was then transferred into another vehicle, according to the surveillance video. No one has seen him since.
Lao officials are now denying that the person in the video is Sombath although many experts and others have identified him in the video clip, European Parliament representatives Soren Bo Sondergaard and Paul-Emiled Dupret told a press conference in Thailand's capital Bangkok on Wednesday after two days of meetings with officials in neighboring Laos.
"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, Member of the European Parliament for Denmark.
"This was really deceiving," said Dupret, who is a member of the secretariat of the European Parliament’s United Left Group (GUE-NGL). "It is clear that international pressure [on Laos] will continue to grow and not the contrary."
Some foreign diplomats in Laos had told RFA's Lao Service recently that Sombath may have been abducted by groups linked to the government and possibly killed for his relentless campaign to defend the human rights of the poor rural population and to protect the environment.
Sombath's attempt "to plant the seeds of freedom” in Lao youth minds was perceived as a clear challenge to the Communist Party leadership, which has ruled Laos with an iron fist since 1975, one diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Laos has refused technical assistance from the United States and other countries to analyze the vital closed circuit video footage on Sombath's last known moments.
The European parliamentarians said they noticed a contradiction among Lao officials about the role of video footage in solving crime.
While Lao officials had told them that the video footage on Sombath was not useful in their investigations, police had informed the local media that such footage is key to efficiently solving criminal cases, they said.
"We have to say that the Lao regime is still in a state of denial," said Sondergaard, the vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Organised Crime, Corruption and Money Laundering.
The parliamentarians also cited another contradiction, saying that while the Lao authorities had told them that investigations were continuing on Sombath's case, a policeman in charge of the probe told Sombath's relative that he had stopped investigating and that the case is now being handled by his superiors.
Mugiyanto, the head of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearance, who had accompanied the European delegation to Laos, said there was an urgent need to "break the conspiracy of silence" over Sombath's case.
He also said there appeares to be a "climate of fear" among civil society groups in Laos.
"Before going to Laos, I was expecting to meet more nongovernmental organizations, more civil society groups, but we found there were very few," he said.
'Urgency to resolve case'
The delegation said in a joint statement that they have informed the Lao government of "the urgency to resolve the case" of Sombath.
"[B]ecause every day spent without giving any acceptable answers to this very serious and symbolic case—due to the personality of the victim and the circumstances of the abduction—is very damaging to the international image of Laos, and to a number of goals [targeted] by the government," it said.
Sombath founded the Participatory Development Training Center, which trains Lao youth and local government leaders in community development and poverty reduction.
He was the recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership for the center's efforts to promote sustainable development through the training of young people.
The Lao authorities have repeatedly denied that Sombath was taken by them or is in their hands.
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.