Four years since Laos activist Sombath Somphone’s ‘disappearance’

SE Asia Globe: 15 December 2016

On 15 December 2012, Laos activist Sombath Somphone was abducted in Vientiane. Four years later, his family and human rights groups are still searching for answers.

Lao national and 2005 Magsaysay Award recipient Sombath Somphone stands beside a poster of fellow awardee V. Shanta during a press conference in Manila, Philippines on Monday 29 August 2005. Photo: EPA/ROLEX DELA PENA

Today marks four years since the forced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, an internationally recognised Laos civil society leader who spent three decades advocating for the environment, civic engagement and democracy in his home country.

Sombath was forcibly disappeared after being stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane. Police closed-circuit television shows officers stopping Sombath’s jeep and bringing him into the checkpoint. Within minutes, Sombath reappears and is taken away in another vehicle. His jeep is later driven away by another individual. Last December, Sombath’s family released new footage showing the vehicle being driven to the centre of Vientiane.

There has been no government investigation into Sombath’s disappearance and Laos authorities have not held a briefing on the status of his case since June 2013.

“Since the start, the Lao government’s investigation of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance has been a pattern of delay, denial, and cover-up,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Four years on, Sombath’s family is no closer to learning the truth about his fate than they were in the weeks after he went missing.

“Over decades of his work in grassroots rural development, Sombath inspired thousands of Lao farmers and their families with simple yet innovative techniques to help them farm better and live better,” Robertson added. “But today, Sombath’s uncertain fate prompts fear among Lao civil society groups that their survival is at the whim of the government.”

According to a press release issued by Human Rights Watch today, the lack of a formal investigation into Sombath’s disappearance violates international law.

“The government’s continued failure to seriously investigate cases of enforced disappearance violates its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Laos is a party,” the report states. “The covenant states that governments must provide an ‘effective remedy’ for violations of basic rights, including the right to liberty and security of person.”

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