The Lao government told the United Nations Thursday that missing local social activist Sombath Somphone was not taken into police custody before his disappearance as widely reported and that he may have been kidnapped because of a “personal conflict.”
Yong Chanthalangsy, Laos’s Ambassador to the U.N. office in Geneva, made the statement in a letter responding to queries about Sombath from U.N. rights officials, who have expressed concern that the activist may be the victim of an enforced disappearance by the authorities.
Sombath, who has been honored for his work reducing poverty and promoting education in Laos through a training center he founded, was last seen by his wife driving home from his office in the Lao capital Vientiane on Dec. 15.
Police closed-circuit television footage from that night, which relatives have posted online, shows him being stopped by traffic police, according to government statements about the case.
Yong Chanthalangsy’s letter said that U.N. Special Procedures officials—independent investigators assigned by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council—had been misinformed about the case and that traffic police had not taken Sombath into custody during the stop.
“Contrary to the information the U.N. Special Procedures received, Mr. Sombath was not taken by the police to the police post,” the letter said, according to a copy published in the state-owned Vientiane Times newspaper.
Sombath had been stopped around 6:00 p.m. by police conducting “routine random checks” on vehicles at a police post on Thadeua Road, and had gotten out of his jeep to present his documents to the police, the letter said, citing the footage.
It said that the video footage, which later shows two men entering a pickup truck near Sombath’s jeep and driving to an unknown location, may not show Sombath being driven away from the scene, as relatives had said police told them.
“From the CCTV footage it cannot be confirmed that it was Mr. Sombath who entered the pickup truck."
The letter also noted that the two men who got in the truck—one of whom relatives had said was Sombath—were not forced into it.
“The two persons who got into the truck were not forced to do so. This fact is different from the information the U.N. Special Procedures received which alleged that Mr. Sombath was forced to get into the pickup truck.”
The letter said investigating authorities view “that it may be possible Mr. Sombath has been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business or some other reasons.”
Sombath’s relatives have said he did not have personal or business conflicts that would have led to him being kidnapped.
Sombath, 60, is the former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), a nongovernmental organization he founded in 1996 to promote education, training, and sustainable development in Laos.
The recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work in the fields of education and development across Asia, he was last seen on the evening of Dec. 15 while driving home from the PADETC office in Vientiane.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, which oversees the Human Rights Council, expressed concern that he had been kidnapped because of his work.
“We are highly concerned for his safety and believe that his abduction may be related to his human rights work,” spokesman Rupert Colville said.
He said the organization was distressed by “what appeared to be” Sombath’s “enforced disappearance,” a term which under international law implicates officials or state agents.
Yong Chanthalangsy’s letter stressed that Laos, as a signatory to the U.N.’s Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, is committed to human rights and that officials have put a high priority on investigating the case.
“The Lao government is deeply concerned about the disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone and attaches importance to the investigations underway in order to find out the truth of this incident,” it said.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.