Laos: End Silence on ‘Disappeared’ Activist

Press release from Human Rights Watch

(Française)

(Việt)

Screen Shot 2013-02-20 at 9.39.28 AM(Bangkok, February 19, 2013) – Lao authorities have failed to provide information on leading social activist Sombath Somphone since his apparent enforced disappearance in December 2012, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its human rights commission should intervene in the case with the Lao authorities, who have denied detaining Sombath, and who have not reported his fate or location, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Lao government’s long silence about Sombath Somphone’s whereabouts increase our concerns for his safety,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities seem more focused on deflecting international criticism than genuinely investigating Sombath’s disappearance.”

There is strong evidence that Sombath, a prominent 60-year-old social activist who received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005, was forcibly disappeared by Laotian authorities in Vientiane, the capital, more than two months ago, Human Rights Watch said. He was last seen by his wife, Ng Shui Meng, on December 15 as they were driving separately back from his office to their home for dinner. Shiu Meng lost sight of Sombath’s jeep at around 6 p.m. near the police post on Thadeua Road (KM 3) in Vientiane, and he never arrived home.

Security camera footage from the Municipality Police Station, obtained by Shui  Meng, shows that Sombath’s jeep was stopped by police at the Thadeua police post at 6:03 p.m. Sombath was then taken into the police post. Later, a motorcyclist stopped at the police post and drove off with Sombath’s jeep, leaving his own motorcycle by the roadside. Another truck with flashing lights then came and stopped at the police post. Two people got out of the truck, took Sombath into the vehicle, and then drove off.

On December 19, the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement confirming the incidents as recorded on the security camera, but claimed he was kidnapped for personal or business reasons. Lao authorities have told Sombath’s family, foreign diplomats, United Nations agencies, and civil society groups across Asia that they have been investigating the case. But to date, they have provided no information on Sombath’s whereabouts, his fate, or who was responsible for his enforced disappearance, Human Rights Watch said.

“Lao authorities have not answered the simplest questions about this case, such as why, if Sombath was kidnapped, did the police at the scene do nothing to protect him,” Adams said. “The absence of any real investigation points to the government’s responsibility.”

Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the fate or whereabouts of the person.

Enforced disappearances violate or threaten to violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Laos is a party, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and extrajudicial execution.

Laos is one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in September 2008. As a signatory, Laos is obligated under international law to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.

Members of ASEAN, to which Laos belongs, should publicly raise their concerns about Sombath’s enforced disappearance, Human Rights Watch said. On February 19, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the commissioners of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), calling for them to investigate the case. AICHR’s Terms of Reference provides the commission the right “to obtain information from ASEAN Member States on the promotion and protection of human rights.”

“Sombath’s disappearance is a major test for ASEAN and its human rights commission,” Adams said. “ASEAN’s silence in Sombath’s case reflects a deeply rooted lack of credibility in protecting the basic rights of people in Southeast Asia.”

The latest letter from Human Rights Watch to the Lao Government can be downloaded here.

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Laos, please visit: http://www.hrw.org/en/asia/laos

Australian Foreign Minister expresses concern

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr today held talks with Deputy Prime Minister and
Foreign Minister Dr Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos, in Vientiane.  After the meeting, Bob Carr confirmed via Twitter that he had expressed concern about the case of Sombath Somphone during his meeting.

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 12.02.09 PM

 

84 concerned parties

Please-return-SombathFebruary 13, 2013

Minister of The Prime Minister’s Office
President of The National Assembly
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Minister of Public Security
Vientiane, Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic

CC:

ASEAN Secretary General
ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights
EU Subcommittee on Human Rights

Re:       Status of investigation into the disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone

Dear Madams and Sirs:

We write to you once again with deepening urgency. It has now been almost two months since Mr. Sombath Somphone, founder and former Director of PADETC, was abducted from in front of a police post in Vientiane. Since that time, the Lao Government has claimed that authorities are seriously investigating the matter to arrive at the truth.

We note with great regret that to date, the Lao Government has provided virtually no meaningful updates about the investigation. On the contrary, reports from Vientiane indicate that false and slanderous rumours are being spread about why Mr. Sombath may have disappeared. Sombath Somphone is deeply respected both nationally and internationally for his integrity, honesty and service to his country. Suggestions of personal or business conflicts should be substantiated with credible evidence, or retracted and rejected. Such minimal standards of legal process are surely Mr Sombath’s due as a Lao citizen.

Mr. Sombath’s abduction and the lack of progress of the official investigation has received tremendous international attention and is tarnishing the reputation of the Lao PDR, placing the country’s international profile in serious jeopardy. As noted by the Lao Ambassador in Geneva, the Lao PDR is State party to seven core UN Human Rights Conventions and two Optional Protocols, and signatory to the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. A résolution adopted by the European Parliament on February 7 calls on Lao Authorities to “undertake prompt, transparent and thorough investigations, in accordance with their obligations under international human rights law, and to ensure the immediate and safe return of Sombath Somphone to his family;”

We once again urge the Lao Government to act in good faith, expedite its investigation into Mr. Sombath’s abduction, and provide his family with meaningful updates on the progress of the investigation.

Swift actions by the Lao Government on this matter and the safe return of Mr. Sombath will surely bring credit to the country.

Respectfully,

  1. Alec Bamford, Thailand
  2. All India Forum of Forest Movements, India
  3. AKSI, Indonesia
  4. Andrew Bartlett, United Kingdom
  5. Andrew Nette, Australia
  6. Angela Savage, Australia
  7. Anne-Sophie Gindroz, Indonesia
  8. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Thailand
  9. Bank Information Centre, USA
  10. Bert Cacayan, Terres des homes Germany, Philippines
  11. Brett M. Ballard, USA
  12. Brian Angelo Lim, Singapore
  13. Bruce Shoemaker, USA
  14. Carl Middleton, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand
  15. Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
  16. Centre for Environmental Justice/Friends of the Earth, Sri Lanka
  17. Centre for Human Rights and Development, Mongolia
  18. Centre for Sustainable Development (CENESTA), Iran
  19. Chanida Bamford, Thailand
  20. Chris Greacen, USA
  21. Chris Lang, Indonesia
  22. Cheng Shuling, China
  23. Dani Setiawan, Anti Debt Coalition (KAU), Indonesia
  24. Don Macleod, United Kingdom
  25. Ellen Agger, Canada
  26. Emma Glesen, New Zealand
  27. Femy Pinto, Philippines
  28. FIAN International, Germany
  29. Finnish NGO Platform KEPA, Finland
  30. Focus on the Global South, Thailand, India and Philippines
  31. Forest Peoples Programme, United Kingdom
  32. Fresh Eyes–People to People Travel, United Kingdom
  33. Gary Lee, Australia
  34. Global Witness, United Kingdom
  35. Grainne Ryder, Canada
  36. Herman Kumara Wijethunge, National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) Sri Lanka
  37. Hozue Hatae, Friends of the Earth Japan, Japan
  38. International Accountability Project, USA
  39. International Rivers, USA
  40. Jacquelyn Chagnon, USA
  41. Jenina Joy Chavez, Philippines
  42. Jeremy Ironside, New Zealand
  43. Jim Enright, Mangrove Action Project, Asia Regional Office, Thailand
  44. Joan Carling, Secretary General, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, Thailand
  45. Jon Ungphakorn, Thailand
  46. Jubilee South-Asia/Pacific Movement on Debt & Development, Philippines
  47. Karen Janigan, Canada
  48. Karin Downs, Mass. Dept. of Public Health, USA
  49. Keith Barney, Australian National University, Australia
  50. Ken Kampe, USA
  51. Kevin Kamp, USA
  52. Kenji Fukuda, Representative Director, Mekong Watch, Japan
  53. La Via Campesina, South Asia, India
  54. Lam Thi Thu Suu, Vietnam Rivers Network (VRN), Vietnam
  55. Laofang Bundidterdsakul, Lawyer, Thailand
  56. Lisa ter Woort, Canada
  57. Margie Law, Mekong Monitor, Australia
  58. Martin Lemenager, France
  59. Migrant Forum in Asia, Philippines
  60. Mueda Nawanat, Thailand
  61. Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, Pakistan
  62. Peta Colebatch, Australia
  63. Peter Swift, USA
  64. Philip Hirsch, University of Sydney, Australia
  65. Pierre-Marc Blanchet, France
  66. Pieter Jansen, Both ENDS, Netherlands
  67. Randall Arnst, USA
  68. Randall Ireson, USA
  69. Rebeca Leonard, United Kingdom
  70. Re:Common, Italy
  71. Roger Henke, Netherlands
  72. Roger Rumpf, USA
  73. Rural Poor Institute for Land & Human Rights Services (RIGHTS), Inc., Philippines
  74. Sabrina Kathleen, USA
  75. Samuel Martin, France
  76. Theresa Wong, Singapore
  77. Tipakson Manpati, Thailand
  78. The Cornerhouse, United Kingdom
  79. The Peoples’ Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), Indonesia
  80. Towards Ecological Recovery & Regional Alliance (TERRA), Thailand
  81. Transnational Institute, Netherlands
  82. Walden Bello, Philippines
  83. Water Initiatives Odisha, India
  84. World Rainforest Movement, Uruguay

Resolution of the European Parliament

The case of Sombath Somphone was discussed at a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasboug today (7th February 2013).  You can watch a video of the debate on YouTube.

The resolution was passed unanimously, with the following 9 points:

The European Parliament…

  • Expresses its deep concern about the disappearance, safety and well-being of Sombath Somphone;
  • Is concerned about the tardiness and lack of transparency of the investigation into the disappearance of Sombath Somphone; calls on the Lao authorities to undertake prompt, transparent and thorough investigations, in accordance with their obligations under international human rights law, and to ensure the immediate and safe return of Sombath Somphone to his family;
  • Calls on the HR/VP to closely monitor the Lao government’s investigations about the disappearance of Sombath Somphone;
  • Asks the Lao authorities to reaffirm publicly the legality and the legitimacy of the work for sustainable development and social justice, in order to counter the intimidation provoked by disappearances such as of Sombath Somphone;
  • Welcomes the visit of a group of ASEAN parliamentarians to Laos in January 2013 to seek information about Sombath Somphone and calls on the ASEAN Human Rights Commission to establish an inquiry Committee to investigate the events surrounding the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone;
  • Calls on the EU to put Laos among its priorities for the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council;
  • Stresses that the Lao authorities should take all necessary steps to end the practice of arbitrary arrests and secret detention; calls on the Lao authorities to make enforced disappearance a criminal offense and to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; stresses that enforced disappearances are clear violations of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms;
  • Calls on the Government of Laos to respect the rights of expression and association, the rights of minorities and protect the right to freedom of religion or belief ending all restrictions on the exercise of this right, as recommended at the UN Universal Periodic Review on 21 September 2010;
  • Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the governments and parliaments of the Member States, the ASEAN Secretariat, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Government and Parliament of Laos.

The full text of the resolution can be seen here.

Urgent Appeal of Parliamentarians across Asia and Europe

Urgent Appeal of Parliamentarians across Asia and Europe for Mr. Sombath Somphone

 February 5, 2013

His Excellency
Thongsing Thammavong
Prime Minister
People’s Democratic Republic of Laos

Dear Excellency,

Re: Request urgent investigation into the disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone

We, members of parliament across  Asia and Europe, write to you deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of Mr. Sombath Somphone one of the most prominent Lao co-organizers of the Asia Europe People’s Forum 9, the founder and former Director of PADETC and one of the most respected and influential voices for sustainable people-centred and just economic and social development in Laos as well as in Asia.

Mr. Sombath Somphone has been missing since about 5 pm on Saturday December 15th 2012. His wife and colleagues last saw Mr. Sombath Somphone on December 15 at 5 pm when he left the PADETC office in Vientiane to go home.  He left the office in his own car; his wife was in another car.  He did not reach home and his family has had no news from or about him since then.

We are concerned about his safety, his state of health and his well-being.

We are aware that the International Organising Committee of the Asia Europe People’s Forum has worked intensively with Mr. Sombath Somphone over the last year. His contribution to the successful Asia Europe People’s Forum 9 in Vientiane on the 16-19 October was extremely significant, widely recognized and deeply respected.  In addition he is a highly respected educationalist, inspiration for sustainable development and a recipient of the prestigious international Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005.  He has dedicated his life to sustainable development and poverty reduction in the Lao PDR, and has contributed positively to numerous international processes, including the AEPF9. Mr. Sombath is an inspiration to development practitioners all over the world.

We are deeply concerned for Mr. Sombath’s safety and well-being and his disappearance is cause for great alarm.

We urge the Lao Government to immediately and urgently initiate an investigation into Mr. Sombath’s disappearance.  And, we call on the government to undertake all actions necessary to ensure his immediate safe return to his family.

Yours sincerely,

SIGNATURES Continue reading “Urgent Appeal of Parliamentarians across Asia and Europe”

Australians call on Bob Carr to act

Senator, the Hon Bob Carr
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Level 10, Bligh House
4 – 6 Bligh Street, Sydney NSW 2000

Fax 02 9228 3655

Monday 4 February 2013

Dear Sir,

We are writing to express our profound concern about the disappearance of respected Lao development leader, Mr. Sombath Somphone.

Sombath is the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre, a winner of the Magsaysay award and a tireless worker for sustainable development and improving the livelihoods of people in rural Laos.

Sombath was last seen by his wife who was driving ahead of him, on the evening of December 15th in the Lao capital Vientiane, as the couple returned home in separate cars. CCTV footage released by the Lao police shows Sombath stopping at a police post and leaving his vehicle. The footage then shows his jeep being taken away by someone else. He was next seen getting into a pick up truck with two other men and being driven away.

His family has had no contact from him since.

The only official comment on the matter made by the Lao Government so far has been to deny Sombath is in police custody and any knowledge of his whereabouts, and to speculate he could have been the target of a kidnapping. Continue reading “Australians call on Bob Carr to act”

Third letter from Sombath’s wife

Third Appeal to the Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic 

Ng Shui Meng, Wife of Sombath Somphone, 30 January 2013

This is my third appeal to the Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to release information or results of investigation of the disappearance of my husband, Sombath Somphone, on the evening of 15 December 2012.

Today is the 45th day since my husband’s disappearance and I have done all I can to cooperate with the police and provided information to assist the investigation and find my husband as quickly as possible.  I have also met with the National Assembly Vice-President and his staff to appeal to the National Assembly, as the representatives of the people, to urge the police to expedite the investigation.  But all these efforts have not yielded any concrete information related to the progress of the investigation, other than statements that “the police are still investigating”.

There are still no answers to my queries regarding:

  1. What did the police manning the police post the evening of Sombath’s disappearance on 15 December 2012 said what happened that night, and what did they see?
  2. Whether the motorcyclist who drove away Sombath’s jeep has been identified?
  3. Has Sombath’s jeep (License plate No.: 2624) been found?
  4. Whether the white truck with flashing lights that stopped at the police post and took my husband away been identified?
  5. Has the driver of the white truck who drove away with my husband been questioned?
  6. If the footages were too blurry, as claimed by the police, has the Ministry of Public Security sought technical assistance from any other government or international security agencies? Are they too blurry for the entire Tha Deua Road CCTV cameras?
  7. Has the Lao police issued an Interpol Yellow Notification to inform colleagues in the region about Sombath’s disappearance and sought their assistance?

To all these questions I have not had any satisfactory answers. Continue reading “Third letter from Sombath’s wife”

AFSC staff issue plea to Lao government

1 February 2013

H.E. Mr. Choummaly Sayasone
Secretary General of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and President of the Lao PDR
Presidential Palace, Thannon Sethathirat, Muang Chanthabuli Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic

H.E. Mr. Thongsing Thammavong
Prime Minister
Prime Minister’s Office
Ban Nahai Dio, Muang Chanthabuli Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic Fax: +856 21 213653

Your Excellencies:

Since the founding of the Lao PDR in 1975, we, the undersigned former staff of the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), have had the privilege to live and work in your country. We know well the severe post-war difficulties your people faced after the US secret war. We celebrate the country’s steady progress in education, health and food production.

Speaking as long-standing friends of Lao people, we are seeking information about the welfare of our colleague and friend, Sombath Somphone. His disappearance on 15 December deeply concerns us. We are confident that if the party, government, military, and public security worked together on this matter, Sombath could be returned to his family.

Sombath has gained worldwide admiration for his people-centered, practical and non-violent approach to development. His philosophy inspires elementary students and their teachers to practice recycling, farmers to produce and eat healthy organic foods and rural families to use fuel-efficient cooking stoves. Continue reading “AFSC staff issue plea to Lao government”

EU steps up pressure

EU steps up pressure on Laos over activist’s disappearance

Straits Times, 01 Feb 2013

BANGKOK – The European Union has piled more pressure on Laos with a strong expression of concern over the disappearance in December last year of prominent Magsaysay Award winner Sombath Somphone.

Screen Shot 2013-02-01 at 22.53.08 PMIn a one-hour meeting on Friday morning in Vientiane, senior European diplomats raised the issue with Laos’ Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. “They also spoke for other like-minded countries – the United States, Switzerland, Japan and Singapore,” said a diplomatic source familiar with the meeting, known in diplomatic jargon as a démarche.

The 62-year-old Mr Sombath, who is married to a Singaporean national, is one of Laos’ most prominent civil society figures. His Participatory Development Training Centre was active in education, health and food security issues. He won the Magsaysay Award – Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize – for Community Service in 2005. He is no firebrand, however; instead, he is known for his mild manner and his nuanced approach to sensitive issues.

He vanished on the evening of Dec 15. CCTV footage of the incident showed him pulling over in his jeep at a busy intersection in Vientiane and getting out to speak with police. Minutes later, a man on a motorbike pulled up and drove away in his jeep. Next, a big car with hazard lights flashing pulled up and Mr Sombath got in. He has not been heard from since.