Laos urged to intensify missing activist probe

Times Online: 28 August 2013

BANGKOK, Aug 28, 2013 (AFP) – A European Union lawmaker pressed Laos Wednesday to intensify an investigation into the disappearance of a prominent activist, after raising the case during a trip to the secretive communist state.

Sombath Somphone, 62, was last seen in December 2012 being led away by police in Vientiane after his car stopped at a checkpoint.

CCTV images later emerged appearing to show him being driven away with two unidentified people.

The US and EU have joined rights groups in calling for Sombath’s safe return, and an official European Parliament delegation is expected to raise his disappearance when it travels to Laos in October.

“The Laos regime is still in a state of denial… what the regime (is doing) to investigate is not sufficient,” Danish MEP Soren Bo Sondergaard told reporters in Bangkok, after returning Tuesday from Laos.

“Of course there’s a lot of words about how sorry they (Lao authorities) feel…but when it comes to the concrete steps that have been taken, things are very unclear,” Sondergaard said.

Sondergaard, whose political group will join the October EU trip, said the EU should heap diplomatic pressure on Laos over the missing man, who has been hailed for his work on poverty reduction and sustainable development in a country that remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorest.

Sombath’s wife had been told by local police that they were no longer investigating the case, the lawmaker said, adding a senior foreign ministry official had even questioned whether the man apparently kidnapped in the CCTV footage was Sombath.

The Laos government has repeatedly denied Sombath was taken by them or is in their hands.

To turn up the heat, the EU must obstruct Laos’ efforts to join international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, Sondergaard added.

Laos is a one-party communist state which exerts total control over the media and does not tolerate criticism of its institutions.

In recent years observers had detected signs it was easing its attitude to civil society groups as it seeks greater engagement with the outside world, but Sombath’s case has cast doubt over those efforts.

“There’s a conspiracy of silence in Laos,” said Mugiyanto of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, who travelled with the EU delegation to Laos.

Activists are now “afraid to talk about what happened to Sombath”, Mugiyanto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, added.