Lack of Progress on Missing Lao Activist’s Case ‘Troubling’

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A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines. AFP/Somphone family

Radio Free Asia: 11 June 2013

Nearly six months after the disappearance of prominent Lao activist Sombath Somphone, police have reported little progress on his case amid concerns for his safety by fellow activists.

Laos’s Ministry of Public Security said at a briefing on Friday that police were still carrying out investigations to locate Sombath since he was declared missing in December last year, including coordinating with international agencies.

But activists, who have raised concerns that Sombath may have been forcibly disappeared and called for a thorough investigation into his case, said they were disappointed no new developments were revealed.

“We expected some progress, some leads,” a representative from a nongovernmental organization in Thailand said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We haven’t seen any new developments. It seems that was all they could say.”

Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted by RFA’s Lao Service after the briefing refused to comment on Sombath’s case.

Anti-poverty campaigner Sombath, 61, was last seen in video footage stopping at a police checkpoint in the Laotian capital Vientiane, prompting international concern that his disappearance could be tied to his human rights work.

Lao authorities have denied detaining Sombath and suggested he could have been kidnapped over a personal or business conflict.

Still ‘focused’ on case

Police said at the briefing that the Ministry of Public Security committee tasked with investigating Sombath’s case “remains focused on the issue.”

“The committee in charge of the case will continue to investigate and collect information, check and verify the information sources and collect information from individuals and organizations from within the country and abroad in accordance with its mandates and duties,” deputy police director Phengsavanh Tiphavongxay said in a statement issued after the briefing.

International police cooperation agency Interpol issued a missing persons alert for Sombath in April after Lao authorities reported the case to them, the statement said.

Since then, Lao authorities have provided Sombath’s passport and ID card details in response to requests from Japan, India, and France, and have exchanged information on him with South Korean, U.S., and Spanish authorities, according to the statement.

Police met with Sombath’s wife, Singapore citizen Ng Shui Meng, in April to discuss the case, it added.

Ng has expressed regret over the lack of vital information on her husband’s case, at one point urging authorities to allow her to see him if he was in official custody.

Investigation raises ‘troubling questions’

Last week, a group of more than 40 Australian scholars called on their country’s leaders to pressure Laos to “do everything in its power to account for Sombath’s disappearance,” raising concerns about the “lack of proper process” in the case.

“The official investigation into his case by the Lao authorities has to date been perfunctory at best, and has raised troubling questions,” the scholars said in the letter addressed to Australia’s foreign ministry.

They also called on Laos to speak up in support of civil society groups in order to counter the “serious intimidation” provoked by Sombath’s disappearance.

The former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane, Sombath was the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, considered Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

CCTV video released by police of the traffic stop Sombath made on the night he disappeared showed him being taken away from the police post by two unidentified individuals.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.