Laos facing possible aid review over missing activist, says Euro MP

Radio Australia: (07 November 2013)

A European parliamentary delegation says the Lao government has yet again failed to offer a credible explanation as to the whereabouts of a well-known rights activist.

(audio program)

It’s almost 11 months ago since the disappearance of the internationally-recognised development worker and teacher, Sombath Somphone.

And for the second time this year, a European delegation has visited Laos to press authorities on the case of the missing activist, but they say little progress has been made.

Presenter: Tom Maddocks

Speakers: Soren Sondergaard, delegation leader (August) and member of the European parliament; Werner Langen, delegation leader (October) and Chairman of the ASEAN delegation in the European Parliament; Rupert Abbott, Laos researcher, Amnesty International

MADDOCKS: In August, a European parliamentary delegation drew the conclusion that Lao authorities were “still in a state of denial” about the disappearance of Sombath Somphone.

The delegation was led by Danish member of parliament Soren Sondergaard.

SONDERGAARD: Our key message was that it is impossible in a country like theirs to accept that a person can disappear a few metres in front of a police control station, taken on camera, everything is taken on camera, and despite of that, eight months have gone without any result in the investigation.

MADDOCKS: And now almost 11 months on since Sombath Somphone’s apparent abduction, it seems the message is not getting through.

LANGEN: In our view, it seems to be impossible that the government knows nothing on this case. It was a disappearance under the guise of the Laos police and we say to the government we need a lifesign, first of all. We need a lifesign of Sombath.

MADDOCKS: Werner Langen led the latest effort to find out what happened.

His delegation met with the parliament, government and civil society. The case of Sombath Somphone was at the top of the agenda.

Soon after his disappearance on a busy road in the capital Vientiane on the 15th of December last year, CCTV footage surfaced.

It shows Sombath Somphone being stopped at a police checkpoint on the way home from his office, before being taken away in a truck by two unidentified men.

A sophisticated forensic analysis of the footage has not yet been made.

Laotian authorities continue to refuse offers of technical assistance from the EU and the United States.

As Chairman of the ASEAN delegation in the European Parliament, Werner Langen says Laos could become isolated in ASEAN if the human rights situation in the country fails to improve.

LANGEN: Our understanding is we discuss inside and outside view of human rights situation. We have ASEAN declaration on Human Rights. Laos has been a member of ASEAN since 1997 and Laos was completely isolated before, only 15 years ago. We understand our work as ASEAN delegation. We discussed human rights situation, democratic issues and our visit was in a situation for better understanding.

MADDOCKS: The delegation will present their findings in a report to the EU subcommittee on human rights and the foreign affairs committee.

The EU is one of the largest donors to Laos and when the parliament meets in the next month or so, Werner Langen says the EU’s sizeable support might well be reviewed.

LANGEN: Inside European parliament we need more access and better regulation on human rights. The European Union opened a delegation in 2003 and it’s giving an average of nearly 16 million Euros per year, especially against poverty and in different sectors, governance, rule of law, human rights, health education, agriculture, trade, climate change and this is the reason to discuss special cases like Sombath.

MADDOCKS: To coincide with the latest delegation to Laos, rights groups urged the EU to “use all its leverage”.

Amnesty International was one of those groups.

They’ve welcomed renewed pressure on the case of Sombath Somphone but they say it needs to go beyond just raising the case… concrete questions need to be asked.

ABBOTT: There are a lot of outstanding questions around Sombath’s disappearance including why can’t any of us see the original CCTV footage, the traffic camera footage that captured him being taken from a police post? Why can’t the families see that? Why can’t other countries help with analysing the footage to find out who might have been responsible for taking Sombath. You know, we welcome the fact that many countries had raised the case when it happened, raised their concern. But what we’ve found is often it stops at that. That it’s kind of an item on the agenda when foreign dignitaries meet with their Laos counterparts and then kind of that’s it.

MADDOCKS: Ng Shui Meng is the wife of Sombath Somphone.

Last month, she told The Age newspaper in Australia that if her husband is returned, they will leave Laos and retire quietly.

Every day since Sombath disappeared has been “an eternity of waiting,” she said, “wavering between hope and despair.”

European delegation chair Werner Langen says the Laos government needs to give a sign that Sombath is still alive.

LANGEN: I think the government could be able to deliver.

MADDOCKS: Why do you think that? What indication have they given you?

LANGEN: No concrete indications. That is the problem. Our ambassador in Laos is also on the way to discuss it with authorities in Laos and we hope that Sombath could be, I don’t know exactly, we don’t have a lifesign at the moment and we hope that Sombath could come back to his family.