The wife of disappeared Lao activist Sombath Somphone has expressed regret over the lack of vital information from police on her husband’s case over a month and a half since he went missing.
Ng Shui Meng made the comments in a statement posted online Monday as the European Union told the Lao government during a human rights dialogue that Sombath's disappearance is viewed by the 27-member group with “grave concern,” stressing the "urgent need to quickly resolve the case.”
Sombath is one of Laos’s most prominent civil society figures and has been missing since leaving the office of his antipoverty training center on Dec.15.
His case has prompted international concern that his disappearance could be tied to his human rights work.
Ng said in the statement, her third appeal to the Lao government, that authorities had not provided adequate answers to her questions about the case despite her cooperation with the investigation.
“I am certain that the Lao government and the security institutions have all the resources available to find Sombath. Hence, the lack of any concrete and credible information related to Sombath’s disappearance after 45 days of investigation is very difficult to understand,” she said in the statement dated Jan. 30.
“The agony of not knowing anything after 45 days is even more difficult to bear.”
Police have shared CCTV footage from the night Sombath went missing that shows him pulling over his jeep at an intersection in Vientiane and getting out to speak with traffic police. He has not been seen since the video.
But police have not explained whether the vehicles and individuals in the footage have been identified, whether Sombath’s car has been found, and what police manning the traffic post that night had seen, Ng said.
“To all these questions I have not had any satisfactory answers.”
Ng, who is a Singapore national, said Sombath, 60, was in need of daily medication and urged authorities to allow her to see him if he was in official custody.
“If for whatever reasons he is in the custody of the state, please grant me and my family our right of visitation.”
A police report from Jan. 11 republished in the official Vientiane Times newspaper on Monday said Sombath was not in official custody and that his disappearance could have been due to personal or business conflicts.
“The authorit[ies] [are] not detain[ing] him,” it said, adding that police and the Ministry of Public Security had lent their full cooperation to the case, “contrary to accusations made by some organizations and groups of bad elements.”
It also said that police manning the traffic post that night could not remember details about whose cars they had checked and reported that the situation that evening was normal without any violence.
An official of the Ministry of Public Security, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFA’s Lao Service on Monday that there was no new information on the case but that the investigation was ongoing.
“Regarding Sombath Somphone’s case, we in Vientiane from the ministry as well as all departments involved are still urgently investigating.”
Human rights dialogue
EU officials raised Sombath’s case with Lao officials on Monday during the 4th Laos-European Union Working Group on Human Rights and Governance.
Aside from voicing grave concern over the case, the EU sought “access to an official contact point” in the Lao government “so as to receive detailed information on the continuation of the investigation,” according to an EU statement.
Taking note of the Lao police report on Sombath’s case, the EU representatives “stressed the urgent need to quickly resolve the case so that Sombath is safely reunited with his family, and called for the full cooperation of the authorities.”
The meeting in Vientiane was co-chaired by Laos’s Director General of Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Treaties and Law Department Ouan Phommachak and Director of the Human Rights and Democracy Directorate of the European External Action Service Véronique Arnault.
In a statement last week, the Lao Movement for Human Rights (MLDH), a Paris-based NGO, urged the European representatives to the meeting not to let Sombath “become a desaparecido,” a term for those secretly abducted and killed by government actors.
The group said that his disappearance “under the eyes of the police”and statements about his case by the Lao government were “far from convincing,” raising fears that Sombath was a victim of enforced disappearance by the authorities.
The former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane, Sombath is the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, considered Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
The CCTV footage of him making the traffic stop also shows a man whom relatives have said could be Sombath being picked up and driven away in a truck that appears on the scene after another man appears and leaves again on a motorcycle.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.