New Joint Allegation Letter on Sombath Somphone

Four UN Special Rapporteurs had sent a new Joint Allegation Letter to the Government of the Lao PDR on 05 February 2021. Having received no response in 60 days, the letter has now been made public:

Mandates of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

REFERENCE:
AL LAO 1/2021

5 February 2021

Excellency,

We have the honour to address you in our capacities as Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 45/3, 43/4, 41/12 and 43/16.

In this connection, we would like to bring to the attention of your Excellency’s Government new information we have received concerning the alleged enforced disappearance of human rights defender Mr. Sombath Somphone since 2012.

Mr. Sombath Somphone is a human rights defender who has advocated against land-grabbing and defended the rights of those whose land has been illegally seized. Mr. Somphone is also the founder of the first indigenous non-profit association established in Laos PDR, the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), which focuses on education and capacity building for communities to achieve social and economic development with a focus on environmental issues. The work of PADETC has received both national and international recognition and in 2001, Mr. Somphone was awarded the Human Resource Development Award for his contribution to empowering communities in rural Laos from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

Ms. Shui Meng Ng is a woman human rights defender and the wife of Mr. Somphone. Since his disappearance, she has advocated for the government to thoroughly investigate his disappearance and other cases of enforced disappearance, and has spoken on the affects felt by the families of the disappeared and the lack of effective redress.

Mr. Somphone’s disappearance has been the subject of two previous urgent appeals sent by a number of Special Procedures mandate holders to your Excellency’s Government, sent on 20 December 2012 (LAO 3/2012) and 9 December 2013 (LAO 2/2013) respectively. We thank your Excellency’s Governments for its replies to LAO 3/2012 dated 3 January 2013, 25 March 2013 and 10 June 2013, and its response to LAO 2/2013 dated 7 January 2014. However, we remain concerned that no further updates regarding the investigation into Mr. Somphone’s disappearance have either been publicly disclosed or shared with his family.

The disappearance of a human rights defender and Lao PDR national in Thailand is also an issue that a number of Special Procedures mandate holders previously raised with your Excellency’s Government in a communication sent on 11 December 2020 (LAO 4/2020).

We would also like to recall that the case of Mr. Sombath Somphone has been considered by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance, through its humanitarian individual case procedure, and remains outstanding since it was first transmitted to your Excellency’s Government on 11 September 2013.

According to the information received:

On the evening of 15 December 2012, Mr. Somphone was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane whilst driving home. The police escorted Mr. Somphone to a police building on the roadside. Some time later, a man in civilian clothing on a motorcycle parked outside the police building and drove Mr. Somphone’s vehicle away, leaving the motorcycle on the roadside. Shortly following this, a truck with flashing lights parked outside the police building. Two men dressed in civilian clothing reportedly pushed Mr Somphone into the back of the vehicle, where there were other persons sitting, and drove away.

The following day, Ms. Shui Meng Ng went to a police station to report her husband missing. Whilst there, Ms. Ng Shui Meng was shown CCTV footage of her husband’s abduction, which she took a video of on her mobile phone. In the days following his reported disappearance, Mr Somphone’s family repeatedly visited hospitals in the local area, and on 20 December 2012, the Government announced that it had launched an investigation into the disappearance of Mr Somphone.

However, a few days after his alleged disappearance, Mr. Somphone was reportedly sighted inside a police compound, and his vehicle parked on the compound’s premises. Two days following this sighting, Mr. Somphone was then reportedly transferred to a military camp outside Vientiane and then seven days later it is reported that he was moved once again to an unknown location.

Prior to his disappearance, Mr. Somphone participated in and helped with the organisation of the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in November 2012, a biennial conference aimed at promoting dialogue and collaboration between civil society organisations in Asia and Europe. Mr. Somphone was co-chair of the National Organizing Committee for the Forum, which was the first international civil society event to be held in Lao PDR, and attended by delegates from over 40 countries. Mr. Somphone delivered a speech during the Forum, in which he emphasised the importance of cooperation and open dialogue between civil society organisations and actors, the Government, and corporations involved in large-scale development projects. During the Forum, delegates from different regions of Lao PDR gave testimonies on the illegal seizure of their land. Following the event, a number of the individuals who spoke on this topic during the Forum reportedly received threats from officials. At the time of his disappearance, Mr. Somphone was allegedly involved in addressing these threats and calling for an investigation into them.

The government have reportedly denied Ms. Shui Meng Ng’s repeated requests since 2012 to provide information or updates on its investigation into her husband’s disappearance, or his possible fate. The government has denied any involvement in the abduction, despite the CCTV footage of the abduction, which shows that police officers were present. Ms. Shui Meng Ng has also not received any official documentation from the government regarding her husband’s disappearance. Despite alleged assurances from government officials that they would meet with her and provide regular updates on the investigation into his disappearance, Ms. Shui Meng Ng last met with the Lao PDR authorities in December 2017 and has not been provided with any updates since.

Without prejudging the accuracy of these allegations, we wish to express our deepest concern with regard to the alleged enforced disappearance of Mr. Somphone eight years ago, and the absence of evidence to indicate that efforts have been made to further the search for his fate and whereabouts, and progress the investigation into his disappearance and bringing the perpetrators to justice. We reiterate that enforced disappearance is a serious violation of human rights and is unequivocally prohibited under international law. We also wish to express our utmost concern regarding the information which would indicate that police officers were allegedly present during the abduction and that the abduction took place at a police checkpoint.

The timing of Mr. Somphone’s alleged abduction in 2012, shortly preceded by his organization of and participation in an emblematic international conference of civil society organisations, the first of its kind to be held in the country, is particularly concerning as it appears to be an attempt to incite fear amongst other human rights defenders for carrying out their legitimate work, and also preclude similar civil society events from taking place due to fear of the possible consequences. Whilst we are aware that some factions of your Excellency’s Government were involved in the planning of this conference, we remain concerned that this does not eliminate the possibility that other government factions or government officials may have been involved or complicit in his alleged enforced disappearance. We are further concerned that Mr. Somphone’s enforced disappearance, as a nationally and internationally recognised human rights defender and development worker, is an attempt to deter other human rights defenders in Lao PDR from exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, and their fundamental freedoms.

We remain seriously concerned by the alleged inaction of your Excellency’s Government to meet with Ms. Shui Meng Ng, despite her repeated requests, and provide her with information and relevant documentation regarding the enforced disappearance of her husband and the status of the investigation into his disappearance in the eight years since he was abducted. We are concerned that as a result of such inaction on the part of your Excellency’s Government, Ms. Shui Meng Ng and her family have been denied adequate redress and compensation.

Finally, we wish to reiterate our concern in relation to reports of repeated cases of alleged enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, in Laos PDR and in neighbouring countries. We are concerned that such alleged abductions and enforced disappearances, in violation of international human rights law, are being carried out in response to their legitimate and peaceful efforts to further human rights and fundamental freedoms in Laos PDR. We reiterate that enforced disappearance is a serious violation of human rights which may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and unequivocally prohibited under international law.

In connection with the above alleged facts and concerns, please refer to the Annex on Reference to international human rights law attached to this letter, which cites international human rights instruments and standards relevant to these allegations.

As it is our responsibility, under the mandates provided to us by the Human Rights Council, to seek to clarify all cases brought to our attention, we would be grateful for the observations of your Excellency’s Government on the following matters:

1.     Please provide any additional information and any comment you may have on the above-mentioned allegations.

2.     Please provide the details, and where available the results, of any investigation and judicial or other inquiries carried out in relation to the alleged enforced disappearance of Mr. Somphone. If no such investigation or inquiries have been carried out, please provide an explanation.

3.     In your response to a communication sent by a number of Special Procedures mandate holders to your Excellency’s Government, dated 30 December 2013, reference is made to findings of an investigation, which were shared with the media. Please provide the details of these findings, and any relevant findings related to Mr. Somphone’s disappearance since.

4.     Please provide information as to the reasoning for allegedly denying Ms. Shui Meng Ng access to relevant documentation relating to the alleged enforced disappearance of her husband, and updates as to the progress of any investigation into his abduction.

5.     Please also indicate what measures have been taken to ensure that human rights defenders, journalists, activists and other civil society actors are able to carry out their legitimate work in a safe and enabling environment in Lao PDR, without fear of threats or acts of intimidation and harassment of any sort.

We would appreciate receiving a response within 60 days. Passed this delay, this communication and any response received from your Excellency’s Government will be made public via the communications reporting website. They will also subsequently be made available in the usual report to be presented to the Human Rights Council.

While awaiting a reply, we urge that all necessary interim measures be taken to halt the alleged violations and prevent their re-occurrence and in the event that the investigations support or suggest the allegations to be correct, to ensure the accountability of any person(s) responsible for the alleged violations.

Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of our highest consideration.

Tae-Ung Baik
Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances

Irene Khan
Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Clement Nyaletsossi Voule
Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

Mary Lawlor
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

The Forced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone

The Wrath-Bearing Tree:  by J. Malcolm Garcia

Ng Shui Meng speaks of her husband Sombath Somphone in the present tense, with a firm matter-of-fact tone about his disappearance, a way, I presume, for her to maintain control in a situation where she has none and knows nothing but heartbreak. Yet I hear the deep sentiment behind the words. To her, Sombath is much more than the internationally acclaimed, award-winning development worker who vanished one night years ago. He is her partner, companion and mentor, a man with a quiet presence whom she relies on even in his absence. Although short and thin, he stood out in a crowd partly because of his shock of silver white hair. Most older Lao men dye their hair, she explains. Government officials all have black hair but Sombath has this head of white hair, and he always wears a cotton peasant jacket and yet there is something about him that makes everyone feel deferential toward him. That may have been a contributing factor to his disappearance, Shui Meng muses, this deference, the tranquil influence he has. He would never call himself an activist. He is not confrontational. Sombath believes in cooperation and works with Lao officials. In private he can be critical of the government but never in public. He’s a pragmatist and strategic about what he does. Although he is not political, he inspires people. Perhaps that is what led to his undoing.

On December 15, 2012, Somphone was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and was never seen or heard from again. Lao officials denied any involvement. Officials with human rights organizations believe Somphone was the victim of a forced disappearance by the government. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded answers and the European Parliament expressed its concern but to no avail. The Lao government insisted it knew nothing. Almost nine years later, his fate and his whereabouts remain a mystery. His friends can only speculate on why he was taken. Continue reading “The Forced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone”

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.

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”

Few Answers on Missing Lao Citizens as World Marks Enforced Disappearance Victims

Radio Free Asia: 29 August 2020

The 10th annual International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearance Sunday offers a fresh reminder that Laos has done little or nothing to investigate citizens, including a highly respected development expert, who have vanished in the communist Southeast Asian nation, human rights groups said.

Rural education and development expert Sombath Somphone and others remain unaccounted for, years after disappearing, in most cases after last being seen in police hands.

On December 15, 2012, police stopped Sombath Somphone in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to a police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since. Continue reading “Few Answers on Missing Lao Citizens as World Marks Enforced Disappearance Victims”

Lao Democracy Activist Still Missing After a Year, as Thai Police Investigation ‘Stalls’

Radio Free Asia: 25 August 2020

[Od] had also called… for a U.N. investigation into the disappearance of rural development expert Sombath Somphone.

A Lao democracy activist who vanished under mysterious circumstances in Thailand last year is still missing, with Thai police saying no progress has been made in the investigation into his disappearance.

Od Sayavong, aged 34 at the time he went missing, disappeared in Bangkok on Aug. 26, 2019 after telling a roommate he would be home for dinner, Od’s roommate told RFA in an earlier report, adding that Od’s involvement in politics was the most likely reason for his disappearance.

“He had come out to protest against the [Lao] government, and most recently he had posted a video clip online criticizing the Lao government during the time of the ASEAN meetings in Thailand,” the roommate said. Continue reading “Lao Democracy Activist Still Missing After a Year, as Thai Police Investigation ‘Stalls’”

Southeast Asia’s Desaparecidos

The Diplomat:  10 June 2020 by David Hutt

Enforced disappearances — a tragedy all too familiar in Latin America — are increasingly becoming a feature of Southeast Asian politics, too.

One of bloody characters of Latin American history is that of los desaparecidos, the activist or dissident or just unfortunate person who says the wrong thing who suddenly disappears, never to be heard of again. Sometimes their body is discovered years later, but in most cases they remain missing forever.   

In the English language, there is no word that conveys the sense of hopelessness and not knowing. The family who finds a murdered loved one can at least grieve – but for the families of those who remain disappeared, it is the not knowing that most consumes their anguish. Having spoken to families of desaparecidos from Argentina to Guatemala, the not-knowing is still as raw as it when their loved ones disappeared decades ago. Continue reading “Southeast Asia’s Desaparecidos”

Don’t forget ‘disappeared’

Bangkok Post: 21 December 2019

One year ago this month, Thai activist Surachai Danwattananusorn disappeared mysteriously from his residence in the Lao capital of Vientiane, while the bodies of his two aides were found in the Mekong River. Also, seven years ago this month, Lao activist Sombath Somphone suffered a “forced disappearance” in Vientiane.

These men were all prominent critics of the state, and this is perhaps a good enough explanation as to why neither the Thai and Lao governments have managed to unearth the truth behind the disappearances and killings.

Mr Surachai fled Thailand a few days before the 2014 coup and lived in exile in Vientiane to avoid being thrown behind bars for alleged lese majeste offences. He was followed by his aides, Chatchan Bupphawan and Kraidej Luelert, who used their time in Laos to criticise the military junta and the institution. Continue reading “Don’t forget ‘disappeared’”