Channel News Asia: 14 December 2015
The family of Sombath Somphone, a Laos civil society leader who went missing in the capital Vientiane three years ago, urged the government to do more to probe into his disappearance.
Sombath Somphone, an award-winning campaigner for sustainable development in Laos, pictured in 2005. (Photo: AFP)
Within days after his disappearance, the Laos government released footage showing his Jeep had been driven out of the capital Vientiane.
However, a new piece of evidence released on Monday (Dec 14) by an advocacy group, the Sombath Initiative, revealed his car had been turned around and driven back towards the city centre.
Presented at a press conference entitled “Three Years On: Demanding Answers for the Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone in Laos” in Bangkok was new footage his family retrieved from closed circuit TV cameras (CCTV) along the road where he is believed to have disappeared.
His family claimed they had presented state investigators the new evidence, adding the authorities have yet to examine it.
“This CCTV footage was gathered by Sombath’s family and sheds new light on what happened the night he disappeared,” said Sam Zarifi, Regional Director for Asia-Pacific for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
“Even three years later, information is still likely available and the Lao government is obliged under international law to investigate this evidence fully,” he added.
“It’s actually very likely that there is more electronic information and certainly more possibility of interview of live witnesses.”
Recognised as a prominent civil society leader, Sombath championed sustainable development in Laos in areas such as agriculture, community, and education, and won the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
Before his disappearance on Dec 15, 2012, Sombath was stopped by police at a security checkpoint, according to footage from a traffic surveillance camera.
Shortly after, unknown individuals forced the Magsaysay Award winner into another vehicle and, in the presence of police officers, drove away.
Some analysts believe the Laos government was complicit in his disappearance. So far, no evidence has emerged to help determine whether Sombath is alive or dead. Still, his family remains hopeful.
“Sombath’s family still have hope, especially his wife. Ng Shui Meng still has hope that Sombath will return home safely,” said Thai National Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelaipaijit, adding she does not want to anger the Laos government.
“She often asks the Laotian authorities to please return Sombath safely.”
As Laos takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN for 2016, “Vientiane’s leaders have become aggressively regressive when it comes to human rights,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“While the Laos government has gagged its own people to stop them asking ‘where is Sombath?’, the man who is arguably the most prominent and accomplished development visionary and practitioner of his generation, he is far from forgotten and we will continue to pursue justice for him and his family,” he added.