Supporters of Sombath Somphone renewed their focus on the missing rural development activist on Wednesday, using the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances to press Laos to solve the nearly five-year-old mystery of his disappearance.
Video footage show’s Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012. In the video Sombath is herded into a white truck and taken away, and a man dressed in white returns and drives off in his Jeep.
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.
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.”
The harsh prison sentences handed down to three Lao government critics are a shocking reminder of Vientiane’s intolerance for any form of peaceful dissent, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. FIDH and LMHR reiterate their call on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the three.
“By locking up dissidents for up to two decades, the Lao government has abandoned any pretense of compliance with the country’s international human rights obligations. It’s time for the international community to drop the diplomatic niceties and condemn the Lao government’s latest attack on civil society in the strongest possible terms.” Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH President
According to information received by LMHR, in early April, Messrs. Somphone Phimmasone, 30, and Soukan Chaithad, 33, were sentenced to 20 and 18 years in prison respectively. Ms. Lodkham Thammavong, in her early 30s, received a 12-year prison sentence. The three are currently detained in Samkhe prison, on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane.
Due to the difficulty of obtaining and verifying information in Laos, it was not immediately clear on what exact day Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham had been sentenced and the charges for which they had been found guilty.
“The imprisonment of Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham sends 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.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President
The arrest of Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham was due to their repeated criticism of the Lao government while they were working in Thailand. The three had posted numerous messages on Facebook that criticized the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations. On 2 December 2015, Lodkham, Somphone, and Soukan were among a group of about 30 people who protested against their government in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok.
Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham were arrested in March 2016 after returning to Laos from Thailand on 18 February 2016 to apply for passports in order to re-enter Thailand and obtain the necessary documents to work legally. On 4 March 2016, police arrested Lodkham and Somphone at Lodkham’s family home in Ban Vang Tay Village, Nong Bok District, Khammuan Province. Soukan was arrested on 22 March 2016 at the Lao Ministry of Public Security head office (‘’Ko Po So“) in Savannakhet City.
On 25 May 2016, state-run TV showed Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham in custody at police headquarters in Vientiane. The news report said the three had been arrested for threatening national security by using social media to tarnish the government’s reputation.
The European Union (EU) must demand the Lao government release all political prisoners and make real progress towards solving all cases of enforced disappearances, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today.
FIDH and LMHR made the call ahead of the 7th EU-Laos human rights dialogue, which is scheduled to be held in Vientiane on 16-17 February 2017. In conjunction with their call, the two organizations released a briefing paper that provides an update on the human rights situation in Laos since the previous dialogue, held in November 2015.
“After many fruitless rounds of human rights dialogues, the EU can no longer tolerate the Lao government’s deceptive tactics and its failure to uphold its human rights obligations. The EU must make it clear that the release of all dissidents and the transparent and thorough investigation of all cases of enforced disappearances, including Sombath Somphone’s, are conditions for the continuation of constructive bilateral relations,” said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.
In a break with previous years, in November 2016, the EU failed to raise the issue of the enforced disappearance of prominent Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone in its statement released on the occasion of the annual round table meeting between the Lao government and development partners. In addition, Sombath’s name was not mentioned in the joint statement issued at the conclusion of the 6th dialogue on 6 November 2015. His case was vaguely referred to as “the disappearance.”
“The EU’s failure to even mention Sombath Somphone’s name in its interaction with the Lao government plays into Vientiane’s strategy of seeking to relegate Sombath’s case to oblivion. If the human rights dialogue is not accompanied by any strong message it will remain a hopeless exercise,”said LMHR President Vanida Thephsouvanh.
In their joint briefing paper, FIDH and LMHR make specific recommendations to the EU to demand Laos show tangible progress with regard to: the right to freedom of opinion and expression; arbitrary detentions; enforced disappearances; the death penalty; and electoral reform.
Since its first human rights dialogue with the EU in 2005, Laos has consistently ranked near the bottom of many international indexes and rankings compiled by independent organizations that measure respect for democratic principles and key civil and political rights.
FIDH: Mr. Andrea Giorgetta (English) – Tel: +66886117722 (Bangkok)
The Lao government must immediately and unconditionally release two former pro-democracy student leaders who have been arbitrarily detained for 17 years and disclose the fate or whereabouts of two others, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a joint FIDH and OMCT partnership) and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today.
Mr. Thongpaseuth Keuakoun and Mr. Sengaloun Phengphanh, two former student leaders with the Lao Students Movement for Democracy (LSMD), are believed to be detained in Samkhe prison, located on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane. Messrs. Thongpaseuth and Sengaloun were arrested in Vientiane on October 26, 1999, along with fellow LSMD members Mr. Bouavanh Chanhmanivong, Mr. Khamphouvieng Sisa-at, and Mr. Keochay, for planning peaceful demonstrations that called for democracy, social justice, and respect for human rights. All five were subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison for “generating social turmoil and endangering national security.” Continue reading “Laos: Free former student leaders arbitrarily detained for 17 years”
Sombath continues to be an inspiration to many in Laos and beyond. Those who struggle for justice, for sustainable development, for respect of fundamental rights deserve better than silence.
…it is of utmost importance that international community present in Laos clearly condemns his enforced disappearance. It is not enough to ask for an investigation. A clear condemnation is necessary to defend Sombath’s legacy in the area of sustainable development. We cannot let propaganda damage Sombath’s reputation and contribution to his country, and have rumors being spread on reasons justifying what happened to him, to the point that Sombath has become a taboo in his own country.
In a new strike on freedom of expression, Laos broadcasts a stark warning to social media users.
Vientiane, Laos – With their heads hung low, three Laos nationals quietly apologise on state TV for betraying the country through anti-government Facebook posts, a striking parade of apparent confessions in the communist regime’s latest crackdown on dissent.
The ominous broadcast in late May was the first news of the trio for families desperate to know their whereabouts since they were arrested in March.
“From now on I will behave well, change my attitude and stop all activities that betray the nation,” said 29-year-old Somphone Phimmasone on Lao National TV.
He sat between the two co-accused: his girlfriend, Lodkham Thammavong, 30, and another man, 32-year-old Soukan Chaithad, each wearing the trademark royal blue uniforms of prisoners.
(Paris) Lao authorities must immediately and unconditionally release three individuals who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained incommunicado for criticizing the government, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today.
“The government’s systematic repression of all forms of peaceful dissent underscores the immense gap between Vientiane’s promises to the international community and its abusive behavior at home. It’s time for foreign governments and donors to raise their voices about human rights violations in Laos and demand Vientiane change its ways.” Karim Lahidji, FIDH President