A respected Lao social activist who went missing this weekend was last seen in police custody before being taken away by unidentified men in a truck, according to surveillance video provided to his family by police.
Based on the closed-circuit television footage, Sombath Somphone, the former head of a development agency in Vientiane, was taken to a roadside police station in the capital city on Saturday night after the car he was driving was stopped by traffic police, a relative who wished to remain anonymous told RFA’s Lao Service.
He was then seen leaving the police post and entering a pickup truck accompanied by a few men, she said.
“We know that he was taken,” she said. “We are searching for him using the CCTV and looking for his car.”
She said police had shown the family the footage on Monday, but did not provide any explanation of who took him away or why he had been allowed to leave the station.
The footage, which relatives posted online on Wednesday, shows—according to the relative—a man arriving on a motorbike at the police station while Sombath is inside, then leaving and coming back with other men in a truck to pick him up.
“He was driving and was stopped by traffic police. They talked and he came out of the car. They went to a police station,” she said.
“They went in, and we don’t know what happened inside the police station. But later on there was a man who came on a motorbike, stopped it in front of Sombath’s car, and walked into the police station.”
“Then [the man] came back, this time driving a pickup truck with a few men. They went into the police station, and came out with Sombath,” she said.
“He was not handcuffed or coerced, he just walked on his own with those men and got into the car in a hurry, and the car took off even before the door was closed.”
The activist’s wife last saw Sombath, the former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane, when they both left group’s office around 5:00 pm on Saturday.
The case has drawn concern from the U.S., where State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland asked the Lao government to work to find him.
"We have registered our concern with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Laos and encouraged them to make every effort to locate him and figure out what's happened here," she told reporters.
A group of 61 Thai NGOs have also issued a statement expressing concern about Sombath, who was the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, a prestigious award for Asian civil society groups.
Family members were not aware of Sombath being embroiled in any disagreements with other people, the relative said.
"Family members including his wife discussed whether he had any problems with anybody, and we could not find any,” she said.
She said that according to his wife, Shui Meng, there was “no way” Sombath had been involved in problems over money because he had not lent or borrowed money.
She said the police told the relatives they will try their best to search and look for him, and that colleagues and relatives were following up with their own efforts.
The chief of the police investigation department in Vientiane confirmed with RFA’s Lao Service Tuesday that they had begun investigating the case after family members reported the case to them on Monday.
Sombath, 60, who had studied in the U.S. before returning to Laos to found PADETC’s precursor in 1980, recently retired as director of the organization after over a decade as its director.
Since then Sombath had been involved with the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, representing local civil society groups as a member of Laos’s national committee at the October forum in Vientiane on the sidelines of an international summit.
PADETC, which receives funding from the Dutch-based Novib/Oxfam and the EU, among other agencies, works on poverty prevention and sustainability projects such as fuel-efficient stoves, fish farming promotion, recycling, media, school volunteers, and teacher training.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot, Bounchanh Mouangkham, and Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.