Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society member who was abducted outside a police post in the capital, Vientiane, in December 2012, remained disappeared with no progress in his case. In March, a former military general heading a non-profit organization – widely believed to be a government proxy – made a failed attempt to have Sombath Somphone’s name removed from the agenda of the ASEAN People’s Forum event. No progress was made in the case of Sompawn Khantisouk, an entrepreneur who was active on conservation issues. He remained disappeared since being abducted by men believed to be police in 2007.
From Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 report. The full report, which also raises concerns about the freedoms of expression and association, is available here.
The Laos authorities must establish an independent commission to uncover the truth about the fate of civil society activist Sombath Somphone, Amnesty International said on the third anniversary of his disappearance.
In an open letter to the Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, 49 Directors of Amnesty International national offices around the world are highlighting the near complete lack of progress in the case despite a catalogue of evidence.
“Sombath Somphone’s disappearance remains a dark stain on Laos’ human rights record. The Laos authorities’ claim that they are investigating this crime is a lie – they are simply dodging questions and trying to silence civil society’s attempts to raise the case,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia and Pacific Regional Office Director.
“Three years is too long for Sombath’s family and his many supporters to wait for the truth. The Laos authorities must once and for all set up an independent commission to genuinely investigate Sombath’s disappearance.”
Amnesty International urges Laos to undertake a thorough and independent investigation into the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone
Human Rights Council adopts Universal Periodic Review outcome on the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Amnesty International welcomes recommendations made by 10 states in the UPR Working Group, on the enforced disappearance of well-known and respected civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who has dedicated his life to promoting sustainable development and poverty reduction. 1 His abduction was captured on CCTV footage, as he was stopped by traffic police at around 6pm on 15 December 2012 outside a police post in the capital, Vientiane. He was last seen being driven away in a white pick-up truck and has not been seen or heard from since then. 2 Unfortunately, Laos did not accept six of these recommendations; however, the government did commit to undertaking a thorough and impartial investigation into his disappearance which Amnesty International calls on it to fulfil. 3
A further 10 states urged Laos to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, 4 and Laos has indicated that it is considering ratification. 5 It is regrettable, however, that Laos rejected calls by seven states to extend a standing invitation to the Special Procedures, 6 and specifically to facilitate a visit by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. 7
The decision by the authorities to reject offers of technical assistance in the search for Sombath Somphone signals a lack of genuine commitment to uphold the rule of law and to protect the rights of its citizens. 8 The disappearance of Sombath Somphone and the failure by the authorities to adequately investigate have become symbolic of the climate of repression in Laos, with a lack of transparency and no accountability for human rights violations. This in turn has had a chilling effect on civil society and on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression more generally.
Despite comments in the opening statement by the head of the Lao delegation to the UPR Working Group on 20 January 2015 that “[t]he rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly are guaranteed in the Constitution, laws and decrees”, in practice these rights are severely restricted with the state exercising tight control over the media, the judiciary and political and social institutions. Amnesty International calls on the authorities to extend its apparent willingness to participate in the UPR process, and particularly as it seeks membership of the UN Human Rights Council in the upcoming elections, to enable independent monitoring of the human rights situation and to engage in genuine consultation on the promotion and protection of human rights.
The UN Human Rights Council adopted the outcome of the Universal Periodic Review of Lao People’s Democratic Republic on 25 June 2015 during its 29th session. Prior to the adoption of the review outcome, Amnesty International delivered the oral statement above.
International Secretariat, Amnesty International, 1 Easton St., London WC1X 0DW, UK www.amnesty.org
Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review – Lao People’s Democratic Republic, A/HRC/29/7, recommendations 121.25 (Germany); 121.94 (Luxembourg), 121.95 (Poland), 121.96 (Portugal), 121.97 (Sweden), 121.98 (Switzerland), 121.99 (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), 121.100 (Australia), 121.101 (Canada), 121.151 (Finland).
See Amnesty International report, Laos: Caught on camera – the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone (Index: ASA 26/002/2013).
We are disappointed that the Lao PDR investigation into Sombath’s disappearance has seemingly not commenced in any substantial manner even after 2 years.
We know, you know, the representatives at the UN Universal Periodic Review know and the investigation team knows that the person who parked his motor bike at the police post and who then drove off in Sombath’s vehicle can be identified because the motor bike was identifiable.
We all know that the officer in charge of the police post and therefore in control of events on that on that fateful day can be identified and interviewed. This officer would normally know the identities of persons who entered the police post during the course of Sombath’s apprehension and disappearance.
We know that the licence number of the vehicle that took Sombath away is identifiable through CCTV footage taken at the time. Yet there is no evidence that these simple elements of an investigation have been made.
We all know that the Lao PDR Penal Code prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and abduction. We also know as you would, that no one in Laos can be detained for more than 12 months without trial.
In August 2005, in front of an audience in Manila, Lao development worker Sombath Somphone received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership.
Known as Asia’s Nobel Prize, it showed that Sombath’s work was appreciated not just by the people of Laos but across the region.
The award recognised Sombath’s “hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders”.
But much of that hope has now been lost. Rather than mentoring a new generation of Lao community leaders, Sombath is missing – a victim of enforced disappearance – and Lao civil society is fractured and fearful.
An enforced disappearance takes place when a person is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or agents acting for the state, who then deny that the person is being held or conceal their fate or whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.
And this serious human rights violation, recognised as an international crime since the aftermath of World War II, is ongoing as long as Sombath’s fate and whereabouts remain unknown.
Two years after you disappeared on the evening of 15 December 2012, we, directors from across the global Amnesty International movement, write to express our deepest hopes for your safe return.
We have all seen the CCTV footage of your disappearance outside a police post on Thadeua Road in Vientiane. This evidence strongly indicates involvement of agents of the Lao state, whether through direct perpetration, or through support or complicity.
Yet for two years, the Lao government has denied arresting you and denies any responsibility for your disappearance. They have failed to conduct a prompt, thorough, competent and impartial investigation. They have refused other countries’ offers of external assistance, including analysis of the original CCTV footage.
We are deeply disappointed that the Lao authorities have not lived up to their human rights obligations. Laos signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED) in September 2008. It has not yet ratified the Convention, but it is expected to act according to the letter and spirit of its provisions. Laos is also a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides that governments must provide an ‘effective remedy’ for violations of rights guaranteed by the Covenant, including the rights to liberty and security of person. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Amnesty International”