Five years ago, Shui-Meng Ng and her husband, Sombath Somphone, were driving their car through Vientiane. It was on that day that he disappeared.
Security camera footage at a checkpoint showed police officers stopping his Jeep. Sombath, a well-known civil society leader, is shown getting out of his vehicle. Moments later, a lone motorcyclist arrives, parks his bike, and drives away in the Jeep. Then an unmarked white pickup pulls up and Sombath gets in the truck, which drives away.
Activists say the police closed-circuit television shows Sombath being arrested at the police checkpoint. Shui-Meng has not heard from her husband since.
On the fifth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned organizations, express outrage at the Lao government’s failure to independently, impartially, effectively, and transparently investigate Sombath’s disappearance, reveal his whereabouts, and return him to his family.
The Lao government’s continued silence and obfuscation of the facts around Sombath’s enforced disappearance have subjected his family to five years of fear and uncertainty over his fate and whereabouts, which remain unknown to this day.
Sombath was last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street of the Lao capital, Vientiane, on the evening of 15 December 2012. His abduction was captured on a CCTV camera near the police checkpoint. The footage strongly suggests that police stopped Sombath’s vehicle and, within minutes, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove him away in the presence of police officers. CCTV footage also appears to show an unknown individual driving Sombath’s vehicle away from the city center before returning sometime later. Continue reading “Five years on, 122 organizations worldwide demand to know: “Where is Sombath?””
Ministry of Justice, Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic\
13 December 2017
Dear H.E. Mr. Thongloun Sisoulith, H.E. Mr. Bounnhang Vorachith and H.E. Mr. Xaysi Santivong,
RE: REPEAL OF DECREE ON ASSOCIATIONS No. 238 of 2017
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), The Centre for Civil and Political Rights (CCPR-Centre) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) express deep alarm about the issuing and coming into force of the Decree on Associations (No. 238 of 2017) (‘the Decree’) in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Continue reading “Open letter on repeal of decree on associations No. 238”
Press Conference: Sombath Somphone Five Years On: Demands for Truth and Justice Continue
And film Screening: The Disappearance of Sombath Somphone
10am and 6.30pm, Thursday December 07, 2017
Press Conference: Sombath Somphone Five Years On: Demands for Truth and Justice Continue
Time: 10 am-12 pm
Place: Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand
December 15th will mark five years since Sombath Somphone, Magsaysay Laureate and Lao civil society leader, was abducted in full view of traffic police and CCTV cameras on a busy Vientiane street. Lao Authorities maintain their investigation continues, even though they have provided no information either publicly or privately in four and one-half of those five years.
While donor support for the development of Lao civil society organisations has increased significantly, so have government restrictions, including numerous arrests, harsh sentences, and a more stringent decree on Non-Profit Associations in the past year alone. A climate of fear and self-censorship prevails among local groups, as well as donors and other international organisations.
Panelists will revisit the conditions surrounding Sombath’s enforced disappearance, and explore what has, and has not, happened since that time.
Ng Shui Meng: Former Deputy Representative for UNICEF Laos 2000 to 2004; wife of Sombath Somphone
Charles Santiago: Member of Parliament, Selangor Malaysia; Chairperson, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
Anne-Sophie Gindroz: Former Country Director of Helvetas; author of “Laos, the Silent Repression”
Moderator: Phil Robertson, Deputy Director, Human Rights Watch Asia Division
Film Screening: The Disappearance of Sombath Somphone
Length: 53 minutes
Time: 6.30 – 8.30 pm
Place: Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand
The Disappearance of Sombath Somphone” is a new documentary film  that looks at Sombath’s life and times, and the events leading up to his disappearance in 2012. Featuring interviews with his wife, Shui-Meng Nag, Lao PDR historian Martin Stuart-Fox, and former European Union Ambassador to Lao PDR, David Lipman, and others.
The film will be introduced by Ng Shui Meng, wife of Sombath Somphone. The screening will be followed by an informal discussion.
Both events are co-organized by The Sombath Initiative, Human Rights Watch, FIDH, ICJ
(Paris) International donors must urge the Lao government to scrap new legislation that imposes severe restrictions on civil society, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. The new Decree on Associations, signed by Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on 11 August 2017, came into effect on 15 November 2017. The decree replaces a previous Decree on Associations enacted in 2009 and applies to all domestic associations, commonly known as Non-Profit Associations (NPAs).
FIDH and LMHR made their call ahead of the Round Table Implementation Meeting (RTIM), an annual conference attended by Lao government officials and representatives from development partners. The RTIM is scheduled to be held in Pakse, Laos, on 22-23 November 2017.
“By imposing pervasive controls and restrictions on local associations in an already repressive environment, the new decree is the last nail in the coffin for Lao civil society. Aid agencies and international donors must demand Vientiane repeal the decree and replace it with legislation that respects the rights to freedom of expression and association in accordance with international standards.” Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH President
FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights and its member organization for Laos Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR)
A United Nations (UN) body has demanded that Lao authorities immediately and unconditionally release three government critics who were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms, according to information received by FIDH.
“The UN opinion that declares the detention of the three peaceful government critics arbitrary certifies that Laos has zero respect for its international human rights obligations. The Lao government should take note that it can no longer hide its repressive actions from the international community and immediately release all dissidents,” said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.
The space for civil society to conduct human rights activities remains non-existent in the Lao PDR, in breach of Article 22 of the ICCPR. Political groups other than the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party-backed organizations are banned. The government has routinely used its influence to manipulate the membership of civil society organizations’ boards and has forced some organizations to change their names to remove certain words, such as “rights.”
…Lao authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest and detain government critics and charge them under provisions of the Criminal Code. In many cases, little or no information is provided to those arrested on the reason for the deprivation of their liberty or the charges they face. Lao activists have been detained incommunicado without access to legal assistance, and held in prolonged pre-trial detention. This amounts to a clear violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR [see also below, Article 14].
…The government has continued to refuse to adequately and effectively address the issue of enforced disappearance in the country. To this day, the fate and whereabouts of at least 13 activists remain unknown. In the most emblematic case, the government has failed to conduct a thorough, credible, and impartial investigation into the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared after being last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street in Vientiane on 15 December 2012.
Excerpts from the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) submission to the List of Issues for the 121st session of the UN Human Rights Committee. The full submission is available here, and the Lao government report and other documentation here.
BANGKOK-Human rights groups say the international community, including the United Nations, needs to press Lao authorities on human rights issues.
The calls come amid a string of harsh jail terms handed down by Lao courts against critics of the Communist government.
Rights groups point to Laos’ failures in taking “significant steps to remedy” a poor human rights record and tough restrictions on freedom of speech, association and assembly.
Three Lao migrant workers were recently sentenced to jail terms of between 12 and 20 years for comments posted on social media while in Thailand and because they attended a protest outside the Lao Embassy in Bangkok.
Human rights groups have condemned harsh prison sentences and called for the release of three Lao migrant workers who posted critical comments on social media and joined a protest outside the Lao Embassy in Thailand.
The workers, Somphone Phimmasone, 30, Soukan Chaithad, 33, and Ms Lodkham Thammavong, were sentenced in early April to prison terms of between 12 and 20 years.
A harsh message on human rights
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said the sentences sent a “chilling message across Lao civil society that the government is determined to crush the slightest sign of activism and opposition to its authoritarian rule.”
While in Thailand, the migrant workers posted messages on social media critical of the government, alleging corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations.
They also participated in a protest against the government outside the Lao Embassy in December, 2015.
They were arrested in March 2016 after returning to Laos to reapply for official documents before planning a return to Thailand.
Government accuses the 3 of ‘threatening national security’
Lao state-run television showed Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham, being held in custody at the police headquarters in Vientiane. Official reports accused the three of threatening national security and tarnishing the government’s reputation.
Andrea Giorgetta, FIDH Asia Desk director, said the arrests highlighted the government’s close monitoring of citizens abroad.
“The government of Laos went out of its way to persecute these three dissidents actually based in Thailand. It shows that the government is also stepping up on-line monitoring of its citizens because these three have expressed their opinions and criticisms of the government policy,” Giorgetta told VOA.
Laos classified as ‘not free’
The U.S.-based non-governmental organization Freedom House, in its assessment of the civil liberties and media rights, classifies Laos as ‘not free’, with low or zero ratings on political right and liberties.
In 2016, Freedom House noted Lao authorities were increasingly attentive to criticism on social media, detaining citizens for “contentious posts” ahead of Laos chairing meetings of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the migrant workers had taken “advantage of the relative freedom” they experienced in Thailand to criticize the Lao authorities.
“The criticisms should not be a crime,” he said, adding the three were held for several months in pre-trial detention. The sentencing highlighted the “shortcomings in the Lao judicial system,” he said. “There is a complete lack of transparency and accountability within the Lao judicial system, which you see when people don’t have access to lawyers, trials are conducted in secret, families are only informed well afterward of proceedings against their loved ones.”
No tolerance for criticism
The verdicts add to a list of arrests and forced disappearances of activists and protesters who have been critical of issues ranging from land disputes to allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
The high profile disappearance in December 2012 of well known civil society leader Sombath Somphone, after he was seen being arrested at a police checkpoint, remains unresolved amid calls for transparency in the case.
Shalmali Guttal, a spokesperson for “The Sombath Initiative”, said harsh sentencing by authorities in Lao has been on-going over several years as regional governments also look to tighten controls over social media.
A long history
“This is a trend in Lao for sure. It’s been going for a very long time of course because there is no critical discussion publicly about policy, about governance, about how the affairs of the state and society is conducted. So yes, that’s been going on. It is also part of this trend in the region,” Guttal said.
Other cases include the 2009 detention of a group of men and women planning to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations in Laos, while in 2007 an outspoken critic of Chinese sponsored agricultural projects also disappeared.
FIDH’s Giorgetta said with the existing media outlets tightly controlled, increasingly people and Lao civil society have turned to social media to express grievances.
“We have seen arbitrary arrests of activists who have exposed cases of corruption and bad governance,” he said.
Huge construction projects underway
Of key concern are major infrastructure projects, especially by Chinese and Vietnamese investors, including the China-led $6.0 billion, 415 kilometer rail line from northern Laos to the capital Vientiane.
“The infrastructure and development projects being implemented in Laos – but that merely results in massive human rights violations – like the case of the Lao China railway that just started [in construction],” he said.
Robertson’s Human Rights Watch says a major concern for the three migrant workers will be to survive the harsh prison conditions.
He said the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has applied its “full force to basically ruin these people’s lives and throw them behind bars for long sentences, which given the very poor conditions in Lao prisons, for some of them could be a death sentence.”