Scholars call for Sombath probe

The Age: 22 July 2013   Marika Dobin

Footage of the scene of activist Sombath Somphone's abduction in December.
Footage of the scene of activist Sombath Somphone’s abduction in December.

He was considered Laos’ most famous community leader before his apparent abduction by the side of a busy Vientiane road was caught on film seven months ago.

Bootlegged CCTV footage appears to show sustainability activist Sombath Somphone being dragged away by several men when he stopped for what authorities claim was a routine traffic check.

Sombath, 61, has not been seen or heard of since but Amnesty International has claimed it may have been an ”enforced disappearance” by authorities.

Sombath Somphone.
Sombath Somphone.

Global leaders, including Hillary Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and United States Secretary of State John Kerry, have called for Laos to either release Sombath or launch an official investigation.

Now a group of scholars from Australia’s leading universities are calling on the Rudd government to get tough with its Lao counterpart over the human rights issue. Forty-two academics from institutions such as ANU, the University of Sydney, Macquarie University and University of Queensland wrote to Foreign Minster Bob Carr last month asking him to take a stronger stance.

Australia has a $50 million aid program to Laos and Australian companies have also made large investments in Lao mining and natural resources.

However, the response from Mr Carr about the case in a June Senate estimates committee hearing and his personal conversations with Lao ministers were not enough to satisfy scholars.

Signatory Dr Keith Barney, from ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, said Sombath’s disappearance sent a ”chilling message” to those working in community development, particularly Lao nationals, about their ability to speak freely on critical issues of resource rights and development policy in Laos.

Sombath’s wife, Dr Ng Shui-Meng, told Fairfax Media her husband had worked for 30 years on development issues such as sustainable agriculture and education.

An Amnesty report last month points out several inconsistencies in the police’s version of events including why no other vehicles were stopped, why the officers did nothing to stop Sombath being taken away, why the numberplate of a motorcycle abandoned at the scene was not released, and why the CCTV footage at this and other points on the busy road was not publicly released.

Mr Carr did not respond to requests for comment.