Eight Years, and Still No Answers on Lao Activist’s Disappearance

The Diplomat: 16 December 2020

Sombath Somphone’s 2012 abduction heralded an alarming trend of “disappearances” in mainland Southeast Asian countries.

Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone with Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu in 2006.

Eight years ago this week, the Lao civil society organizer Sombath Somphone was driving home in his rusty jeep when he was stopped by police on the outskirts of the country’s capital Vientiane. He was never seen again.

The Lao government has denied any responsibility for Sombath’s disappearance, then and now. But his abduction, captured by surveillance cameras and later posted on YouTube, bore all the signs of a forced disappearance. Continue reading “Eight Years, and Still No Answers on Lao Activist’s Disappearance”

Laos Snubs Wife of Missing Rural Expert in ‘Unconvincing’ Stance on Disappearance

Radio Free Asia: 15 December 2020

The wife of missing Lao development expert Sombath Somphone on Tuesday marked eight years since his disappearance with no information on the case from the communist government in Vientiane whose agents are believed to have taken him away.

“December 15th  is the eighth anniversary of my husband Sombath’s disappearance, and throughout these eight years I have still missed him and want him to return to his family,” Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng said, speaking to RFA’s Lao Service on Dec. 9.

“So far, I have received no updates from Lao officials on their investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, and I still don’t know where he is,” she said.

Sombath Somphone disappeared on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012, after his jeep was stopped outside a police checkpoint outside the capital Vientiane, with video footage showing him later being forced into a white truck and taken away.

Though police promised at first to investigate, Lao authorities soon backtracked, saying they could not confirm the identity of a man shown in the video driving off in Sombath’s jeep, and refusing offers of outside help to analyze the footage.

Before his abduction, Sombath had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the government that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with little paid in compensation. The deals had sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled.

Sombath’s decades of work on behalf of farmers and sustainable agricultural practices helped in him the U.N.’s Human Resource Development Award for empowering the rural poor in Laos, and later the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.

“To date, Lao officials have given me no updates or answers about Sombath. They don’t meet with me, and they just say that they don’t have any information,” Ng Shui Meng, who lives in Singapore, told RFA. “And we have continued to suffer through all these years.”

Philip Alston, Former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told RFA last week that the Lao government’s “persistent refusal to undertake any meaningful investigation is a disgrace.”

He said “overwhelming” evidence of direct government responsibility for the disappearance of Sombath makes official denials “entirely unconvincing and disingenuous.”

Laos “has used the strategy of disappearing its opponents in order to instill deep fear and to deter any criticism,” said Alston.

Rights groups press for answers

Rights groups continue to press the Lao government for answers and information in the case.

“We will never forget Sombath even after eight years, and we’ll keep fighting and asking the Lao government [to explain] what happened to him,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said on Dec. 14.

“We have never received an answer to this question, so we continue to raise this matter with the governments of other countries and with the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. No one should forget what the Lao government did to Sombath,” Robertson said.

“I’m calling on the Lao government to do the right thing—to search for answers about Sombath Somphone for the sake of his family,” added Siriporn Saipetr, a member of the Sombath Somphone & Beyond Project., based in Thailand. “From the closed-circuit TV footage, the government must know what happened to him.”

Vanida Thepsouvanh, president of the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights, said that for the last eight years, the Lao government “has never told the truth about Sombath Somphone.”

“Furthermore, the Lao [People’s Democratic Republic]] doesn’t seem to have any intention of ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance,” she said.

“I think the Lao government is not willing to reveal the truth about Sombath Somphone’s disappearance,” added Bounthone Chantalavong-Wiese, president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos. “They just say they don’t know anything and haven’t seen anything, and that’s concerning.”

“The Lao government should tell his family the truth,” he said.

On Dec. 13, relatives of Sombath Somphone conducted a Buddhist ceremony at the Nakhoun Noi Forest Temple outside Vientiane to mark the anniversary of his disappearance, one family member told RFA.

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (22)

My dearest Sombath,

Today is again 15 December 2020. Every year as this date approaches, my heart aches even more than normally. Today, eight years ago, you were abruptly and so cruelly taken away from me. The images of how you were taken away flashed across my mind just as vividly now as eight years ago when I first saw the footages of your abduction from the police CCTV camera.

Eight years is a long time to wait for some news of what happened to you and your whereabouts. Are you well? Are you healthy? Are your living conditions okay? And invariably the question that comes to my head everyday, which I inevitably tries to push away as soon as it arises is “Are you still alive?” Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (22)”

After eight years, civil society worldwide demands the government establish and reveal Sombath’s fate and whereabouts

FIDH: 15 December 2020

On the eighth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned organizations, reiterate our calls on the government of Laos to reveal his fate and whereabouts, and to investigate all allegations of enforced disappearances in the country to bring those responsible to justice in fair trials.

The government’s ongoing failure to thoroughly, independently, and impartially investigate the cases of Sombath and other alleged victims of enforced disappearance is compounded by its total lack of commitment to address this issue. Continue reading “After eight years, civil society worldwide demands the government establish and reveal Sombath’s fate and whereabouts”

Dear Sombath…from S.Y. Chin (4)

Dear Sombath,

My colleagues, authors and I remember you vividly.

We also remember clearly your inspiring dedication to your beautiful country and your love for the communities you dedicated your life’s work to.

It is fast approaching eight years since we last received an email from you.We look forward to resuming our collegial communication with you.

I wish you and Shui Meng the best as we end 2020 and embark on 2021 when I very much hope to hear from you.

S.Y. Chin, Publisher

Laos’ Rights Record Marred by Arbitrary Arrests, Forced Disappearances and Harsh Treatment in Custody

Radio Free Asia: 10 December 2020

Jailed Lao blogger ‘Mouay’ is shown in an undated photo

The situation “getting worse,” experts say, while the government blames lack of progress on COVID-19.

Citizens who criticize the Lao government are forcibly disappeared or arrested without due process, and endure harsh treatment and lengthy prison terms, experts said on the anniversary of key United Nations human rights pacts that the communist nation has ratified but regularly violates.

Human Rights Day Thursday marks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948.

Laos, whose one-party communist government marked its 45th anniversary on Dec. 2, ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other key U.N. rights instruments in the 1990s, but the rights commitments are not honored, rights experts and activists say. Continue reading “Laos’ Rights Record Marred by Arbitrary Arrests, Forced Disappearances and Harsh Treatment in Custody”

Laos Grilled on Disappearances, Speech Curbs at UN Rights Meeting

Radio Free Asia: 30 September 2020

Laos’ representative to the UN Office in Geneva Kham-Inh Khitchadeth addresses the UN Human Rights Council Sept. 28, 2020.

“We note from the addendum to the UPR report that it is the duty of the Lao government to search for missing Lao citizens including Mr. Sombath Somphone, the Laotian spouse of a Singapore citizen. We hope that Laotian authorities will resolve the case expeditiously and bring about the much-needed relief to his family,” said En Yu Keefe Chin.

UN members and NGOs called on Laos this week to resolve the forced disappearance case of a prominent rural development expert and stop censoring and jailing peaceful critics, as the Southeast Asian nation faced a review of its rights record in Geneva.

In a hearing Monday at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Laos was questioned over the 2012 disappearance of Sombath Somphone, its highly restrictive media environment, and freedom of religion – with one NGO crediting Vientiane for some improvements in treating religious minorities.

Singapore’s representative used the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Lao’s rights record to highlight the case Sombath Somphone, whose wife is Singaporean. Continue reading “Laos Grilled on Disappearances, Speech Curbs at UN Rights Meeting”

Government response to UN human rights review a step in the wrong direction

FIDH: 29 September 2020

The government stated that investigations into cases of disappearances were “considered on a case by case basis,” but refused to reveal how many investigations it had conducted and to provide any information about the “search” for Sombath Somphone.

The Lao government’s failure to accept key recommendations received during its latest Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a step in the wrong direction for human rights in Laos, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. The UPR report for Laos was adopted today in Geneva, Switzerland.

“The Lao government’s non-committal response to international concern over key human rights issues signals that rights abuses and repression of civil society may continue with total impunity for years to come. The international community must step up its pressure on the Lao government and put human rights at the top of its agenda vis-a-vis its relations with Vientiane.” Rahman Khan, FIDH Secretary-General

The Lao government accepted 160 of the 226 recommendations it received during its third UPR in January 2020. The remaining 66 recommendations were “noted” (i.e. not accepted).

“Once again, the Lao government is sweeping its human rights problems under the rug, pretending no one will notice. The international community should not fall for Vientiane’s tricks and, instead, establish clear benchmarks against which human rights progress, or lack thereof, can be measured.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President

Below is a brief analysis of the government’s response to the recommendations made by UN member states with regard to selected key human rights issues.

Enforced disappearances

The government’s response was inadequate with regard to the issue of enforced disappearances. The government did not accept 13 of the 15 recommendations that called for investigations into all cases of enforced disappearance, including that of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was specifically mentioned in five “noted” recommendations. The government stated that investigations into cases of disappearances were “considered on a case by case basis,” but refused to reveal how many investigations it had conducted and to provide any information about the “search” for Sombath Somphone. In addition, the government made no commitments regarding the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) – a treaty Laos signed in September 2008. As in the previous UPR cycle, the government reiterated it was only “considering” ratifying the ICPPED.

Torture and detention conditions

Despite numerous and credible reports of torture, ill-treatment, and sub-standard conditions in various places of detention, the government did not accept four recommendations that called for investigations into allegations of torture, the prevention of torture, and the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OP-CAT). The government accepted two recommendations that called for the improvement of conditions in places of detention.

Death penalty

All 16 recommendations regarding the death penalty did not enjoy the government’s support. They included recommendations that called for: the abolition of the death penalty; the establishment of a moratorium on executions; and the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

Civil society

Amid ongoing repression of civil society, the government accepted two recommendations that called for the creation of an enabling environment for civil society to operate. However, the government refused to accept two recommendations that called for the amendment of legislation that restricts the right to freedom of association. This legislation includes the draconian Decree on Associations (Decree 238), which several UN human rights monitoring mechanisms have criticized for being inconsistent with international standards related to the right to freedom of association. The government said the recommendation to amend Decree 238 was “entirely inaccurate” and did not reflect the “real situation in the country.” The government also falsely claimed that the drafting process of Decree 238 “had gone through extensive consultations with all relevant stakeholders.”

Right to freedom of expression

The government did not accept all three recommendations that called for an end to the persecution of individuals for the exercise of their right to freedom of expression and one recommendation that urged the release of those detained for exercising that right. Another three recommendations calling for the amendment of legislation restricting the exercise of the right to freedom of expression were “noted.” Despite clear evidence to the contrary, the government made the outrageous claim that it had “made efforts to facilitate freedom of expression.”

National Human Rights Institution

The government failed to accept all four recommendations that called for the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) in accordance with the Paris Principles. The government touted the National Committee on Human Rights (NCHR) as the “overarching human rights mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights at the national level.” However, the NCHR is a government inter-agency coordination body whose composition, powers, and mandate are completely inconsistent with the Paris Principles.

Cooperation with UN special procedures

The government refused to accept the two recommendations that called on Vientiane to issue a standing invitation to all UN special procedures. The government justified its refusal by saying that a standing invitation “is not applicable” and that invitations to special procedures mandate holders are considered “on a case by case basis and also based on convenient timing for both sides.”