The Investigation

While there have been virtually no concrete results from the investigation into Sombath’s abduction (other than repeated claims the authorities were not involved) below is a brief summary of related events, arranged chronologically. Updates will be added if and when more becomes known.

16 December 2012: Family members report missing person to Sisattanak District police, and then file a Missing Person Report (Lao) with Vientiane Municipality police.

Sombath09 - pickup departs17 December 2012: Family members are allowed to record CCTV footage of Sombath’s abduction by staff at the Vientiane municipal police station. A cell phone is used to record the images from the computer monitor. They later request a copy of the original files, but this is refused.

17 December 2012: After viewing CCTV footage, family visits police post where Sombath was last seen. Two police officers, Mr. Yortkeo Vanhnalart (ທ້າວ ຍອດແກ້ວ ວັນນະລາດ) and Mr. Bounyang Chantavong (ທ້າວ ບຸນຍັງ ຈັນທະວົງ) report they and two others were on duty the previous day, but saw nothing strange. The family later gives these names to the investigation team, and are told there are many police officers with similar names.

17 December 2012: Ng Shui Meng, spouse of Sombath Somphone, sends a letter to Head of Cabinet, Ministry of Public Security (English) asking them to investigate.

18 December 2012: Ng Shui Meng sends a letter to Thongbanh Sengaphone, Minister of Public Security (English), with copies to Thongloun Sisoulith, Deputy Prime Minister and Alounkeo Kittikoune, Deputy Foreign Minister.

19 December 2012: Ng Shui Meng sends an appeal to the Government of the  Lao People’s Democratic Republic (English) to investigate Sombath’s “…disappearance as soon as possible, release information of his whereabouts and ensure his safety.”

19 December 2012: A spokesperson for the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs releases a statement (English). Specifics include:

  • “…traffic police stopped the Jeep of Mr Sombath…” while conducting random checks. (Note: There is no evidence of police stopping any other vehicles during the 20+ minutes of available footage.)
  • “Mr Sombath walked out from his car to the police to present documents…” to the police, which they returned.
  • A man came on a motorcycle and rushed toward the police post. Soon thereafter a man drove Sombath’s jeep away.
  • About ten minutes later, a “…pickup stopped near the police outpost…” Two unknown persons entered the vehicle, and it drove away. (Note: It is not clear whether two or three persons entered the vehicle.)
  • Authorities suggest Sombath may have been kidnapped due to a personal or business conflict, but are unable to say what actually happened.
  • The authorities are “…seriously investigating the incidence in order to find the truth.”

20 December 2012: Family asks the Vientiane Times to publish an appeal in response to the above government statement, but are rejected. Family then sends the appeal to Alounkeo Kittikoun, Deputy Foreign Minister, (English) as well as to the Prime Minister’s office, the Minister of Public Security and the President of National Assembly.

20 December 2012: A committee is established. (Note: The make-up or members of this committee have never been revealed.)

21 December 2012: Family files complaint form and appeal (Lao) with the Vientiane Office of the Supreme People’s Prosecutor, requesting the court’s assistance in following up the police investigation. After follow-up, the family is told the letter had been lost, although no copy was ever requested by authorities, or submitted by the family.

24 December 2012: The family takes out a paid announcement in the Vientiane Times.

26 December 2012: Ng Shui Meng sends letter to Alounkeo Kittikhoun, Deputy Foreign Minister, requesting they find Sombath.

26 December 2012: A full ten days after his abduction, Sombath’s spouse, Ng Shui Meng, is first interviewed. She is called to the Vientiane Municipality police station and asked about Sombath’s background, his family and work, as well as her own background and work. (see letter to Sombath’s well-wishers) (Note: Not clear whether family was invited to police station, or if they went by themselves).

03 January 2013: Ng Shuimeng issues second appeal (English) to the Lao government, including the Ministry of Education and Sports, asking for information regarding the investigation.

Yong Chanthalangsy04 January 2013: Yong Chanthalangsy, the Lao Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva releases a statement (English). Specifics closely reflect the 19 December 2012 statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the following additions and clarifications:

  • Laos takes seriously the promotion and protection of human rights, having signed a number of UN conventions to this effect.
  • Sombath went voluntarily to the police post. He was not taken there by the police.
  • The person who came on the motorcycle drove Sombath’s jeep away.
  • It cannot be confirmed if Sombath entered the pickup, but those persons entering were not forced to do so.
  • The authorities are accelerating their investigation and collecting information in order to reach a conclusion.

16 January 2013: Ng Shui Meng, along with Sombath’s sister and niece, are called to Vientiane Police Department for interview. They are asked about his background and family members.

16 January 2013: Three parliamentarians from ASEAN release a statement (English) following a visit to Vientiane and meetings with Lao authorities. Specifics include:1st Parliamentarian Delegation

  • Officials “…acknowledged that the disappearance of Sombath is a blow to the reputation of the Lao PDR…”
  • Mr. Phoungsavath Boupha, Minister, Head of Presidential Office, and President of the National Steering Committee for Human Rights, reports there have been other cases of disappearance in Laos. (Note: However, none of the cases cited by international human rights agencies are mentioned.)
  • While most officials report there is no evidence it was Sombath who entered the pickup, Mr. Sakayane Sisouvong, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “…said Sombath voluntarily boarded that vehicle.”
  • Mr. Sisouvong acknowledges as possible a suggestion by the delegation that the abduction may have been carried out by elements within the government.
  • “…after a month of investigation, the only thing that has been established is that the police had nothing to do with the disappearance.”

1Phongsavath Boupha7 January 2013: The Lao government issues a response (English) to the parliamentary delegation. In it, Mr. Phongsavath Boupha:

  • Expresses appreciation for the concerns of the delegation, but “…the Lao government was even more concerned about the issue because Mr Sombath is a Lao citizen.”
  • Acknowledges Sombath’s important role and contributions to the socio-economic development of the Lao PDR.
  • Reasserts “…the Lao government was not involved in the disappearance of Mr Sombath.”
  • Repeats there have been other disappearances in Laos, and some “…might be related to various crimes that involved the use of drugs, human trafficking, business disputes and other issues…”
  • Asserts that disappearances happen in other countries, including in ASEAN, but Laos has not interfered because it regards such matters as internal affairs.
  • The article reports the delegation also met with other officials to hear more about the disappearance. (Note: The delegates themselves reported they were given no significant information.)

24 January 2013: Provincial police authorities in Khammouane Province interview Sombath’s siblings and report they obtained “additional information,” but it is never revealed what this is.

30 January 2013: Ng Shui Meng releases an appeal (English) expressing concern about the lack of concrete results from the investigation, and raises a number of questions.

January 2013: Numerous more appeals made by family in the English Language Vientiane Times, and Lao Language Vientiane Mai newspapers, as well as on radio and television channels.

PhengsavanhTiphavongxay04 February 2013: The Ministry of Public Security releases a preliminary report (English) on their on-going investigation. The briefing is given by Police Colonel Dr. Phengsavanh Thipphavongxay, Deputy Director General of the General Police Department, on 11 January. Details include:

  • Description of the CCTV footage follows earlier statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (19 December 2012) and the Permanent Representative to the United Nations (04 January 2013), with notable exceptions:
  • All references to the police outpost are removed.
  • Contrary to earlier reports and assertions by top officials, “…it can not be verified that the person who drove the Jeep and the person who later drove the Jeep away was Mr Sombath Somphone or not.” (Note: The person getting out of the Jeep and the person driving it away are clearly wearing different clothing.)
  • The traffic police who were questioned could not remember details because “…they have checked many cars each day.” (Note: Again, there is no evidence of any other vehicles being stopped during the 20+ minutes of available CCTV footage.)
  • The traffic police could recall, however, that “…the situation was normal and there was no any incident of fighting or violence occurred and no car or individual was detained.” (Note: The names of these police officers have never been released.)
  • People living nearby who were questioned did not notice anything unusual.
  • A notice was sent to all “police forces” nationwide, but “…feedback from provincial polices [sic] that there was no information, evidence, or any news on the whereabouts of Mr Sombath Somphone.”
  • Despite an intense investigation, Sombath had not been found, and no further evidence about his missing had been obtained.
  • The authorities had not detained Sombath. The police had cooperated fully and sincerely, “…contrary to the accusation made by some organisations and groups of bad elements.”
  • The suggestion is again made that, “…if Sombath were authentically missing, it may be due to a business or personal conflict.” (Note: Absolutely no evidence has been given to support this allegation.)

08 February 2013: Ng Shui Meng and Sombath’s sister again called to Vientiane Police Department for interview (see 02 March government statement).

10 February 2013: Ng Shui Meng sends another complaint letter to government offices.

20 February 2013: Ng Shui Meng sends a letter to the Party and Government Leaders of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (English and Lao) which is certified by the Embassy of Singapore.

02 March 2013: The Ministry of Public Security gives a second briefing (English) on their investigation. Police Colonel Dr. Phengsavanh Thipphavongxay, Deputy Director General of the General Police Department, again reads the statement:

  • On 15-16 January, fully one month after his disappearance, the committee, “…with great attention to investigate and collect information…” learn that “…Mr Sombath has close relatives in Khammuan province.” They collect additional information from his family.
  • On 08 February they again meet with Sombath’s spouse and sister.
  • Claims the police officers on duty could not remember anything because they were checking many cars are repeated. (Note: Once again, there is no evidence to support this.)
  • The motorcycle driver who rushed to the police outpost and the person who drove the jeep away from the police post cannot be identified from the CCTV, and the police officers could not remember them “…because the scene that evening was just normal.” (Note: Anecdotal reports are that police have rarely or never been seen checking cars at that location at that time of day.)
  • 14-police-checks-motorcycleA detail that a police officer tried to move the motorcycle is added. (Note: This is likely due to the fact that stills showing this were added to this website.)
  • Although authorities are able to see the pickup truck in the CCTV footage, they cannot ascertain who entered it, who drove it, or read the plate numbers.
  • Claims are made that the original CCTV footage is no clearer than that taped from the monitor. (Note: Cam bootlegs are widely acknowledged to be of significantly lower quality.)
  • Claims are made that other countries would not allow access to such CCTV footage. (Note: In many countries, such footage is available live on the internet, and often used for news reporting.)
  • INTEPOL and ASEANPOL were notified.
  • Examples of other persons who have disappeared are given. (Note: Again, no cases cited by international human rights groups are mentioned.)
  • Members of the committee are saddened and sympathetic with the family, and have “…concentrated tireless efforts with its utmost responsibility on the investigations to find out the truth,” but have not yet found any concrete information, other than the police were not involved.

Senator_Tuur_Elzinga_presents resolution_of_European_parliament_to Lao_National_Assembly09 March 2013: A delegation of European parliamentarians releases a statement (English) after visiting Laos, during which they presented a copy of the recent EU resolution (English). The delegation strongly asserted “…that it was within the capacities of the Government of the Lao PDR to ensure Sombath’s safe return to his family,” and that “…the credibility of Laos will be deeply tarnished with significant negative effects whilst Sombath is not returned safely to his family.”

01 April 2013: Family writes a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Lao), as well as the Minister of Public Security, Parliament, and the Office of the President and Central Party sending wishes for the Lao New Year, and asking for forgiveness for Sombath if he has done anything wrong,

24 April 2013: Sombath’s spouse and sister called to Vientiane Police Department and asked if they have any new information. Police inform them they have visited Sombath’s home village in Thakhek to ask about him. (see letter to Vientiane People’s Court dated 03 September 2013)

08 June 2013: A third briefing (English) is given by the Ministry of Public Security, with Police Colonel Dr. Phengsavanh Thipphavongxay again reading the statement. (Note: Although these events are described as press conferences, apparently no questions are allowed or asked.) It is reported that:

    • Authorities continue to collect information from individuals and organisations, as well as to coordinate among themselves.
    • They again notified INTERPOL, and sent letters to member counties. Some countries asked for necessary information, which was provided.
    • An update an the results of the investigation was given to Ng Shui Meng on 24 April 2013. “…the committee has also met and clarified this case with interested persons and representatives of the foreign diplomatic missions to the Lao PDR.”
    • These actions have “…demonstrated the high sense of responsibility of the leadership of the Ministry of Public Security, as well as the General Police Department in supervising the committee in charge of the investigations to locate the whereabouts of Mr Sombath Somphone.” (Note: Again, the membership of this committee has never been revealed).

13 June 2013: Amnesty International issues a call (English) for “…a new, independent commission to investigate the case, ensure Sombath’s safe return, and bring to justice in fair proceedings those suspected of being responsible for his enforced disappearance”.

14 June 2013: Human Rights Watch releases a statement (English) asserting “…the government has not shown any interest in conducting a real investigation so they can find Sombath and safely return him to his family.”

15 June 2013: Parliamentarians who had previously visited Laos release a letter (English)to “…express our deep dismay at the lack of political will to conduct a serious investigation into the disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone.” The letter further notes reports previously released “…are contradictory and misleading, indicating the partiality and shallowness of the official investigation. They have not focused on the possibility that Sombath may have been abducted by actors within the Lao government or connected to the Lao PDR state.”

07 July 2013: Ng Shui Meng files report with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. (see ICJ-Memorandum)

A European parliamentary delegation at a press conference in Bangkok on Lao activist Sombath Somphone's disappearance, Aug. 28, 2013.

28 August 2013: A third parliamentary delegation gives a statement (English) after visiting Vientiane, concluding “…with regret, that the Lao authorities have so far not shown adequate willingness or capacity to find a solution to this case…”

August 2013: Last contact between police and Sombath’s family. (see ICJ report “Missed Opportunities.”)

06 September 2013:  WIth assistance from the International Commission of Jurists, family sends an application (English) to Vientiane People’s Court requesting them to order the Vientiane Police Department to: 1) Hasten the investigation, 2) Accept foreign expertise, 3) Release information on the investigation, and 4) Release Sombath Somphone, should it be found he is being detained. She must file this on her own because no Lao lawyers would agree to represent her.

16 October 2013: Family follows up for second time on application sent to Vientiane People’s Court. They are informed there is nothing they can do without a letter of request from the Prosecutor.

17 November 2013: Several bi- and multi-lateral donors call for a renewed investigation at an annual round-table meeting.

21 November 2013: Family visits police for update. They are told the investigation is continuing, they have investigated with various organisations Sombath worked with, checked in all the provinces and districts, and with many foreign countries, but have no results.

09 December 2013: Three UN Special Rapporteurs issue letter (English) to Lao government regarding sightings of Sombath and his jeep inside a police compound and subsequently being moved to military camp.

15 December 2013: Marking one year since the enforced disappearance, a number of calls are made for a more legitimate investigation, including Human Rights Watch, the British Foreign Office, the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, the US Secretary of State, the International Commission of Jurists, a group of 62 Asian human rights organisations, and Amnesty International.

16 December 2013: UN Human rights experts, including the High Commissioner for Human rights, call on the Lao government to “…increase its efforts in the investigations into the enforced disappearance on 15 December 2012, of Sombath Somphone…”

Thongphane Savanphet02 January 2014: The Lao Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN Office in Geneva, Mr. Thongphane Savanphet, issues a clarification:

  • Refuting assertions by UN Special Rapporteurs that Sombath and his jeep were seen inside a police compound a few days after his abduction, and was then taken to a military camp.
  • That the “…authorities concerned have conducted a thorough investigation and could collect some information that may be relevant…” and are continuing with their investigation. (Note: Although nearly seven months since the last report, no new information is given about the “continuing” investigation.)

16 January 2014: The European Union passes a second resolution calling on the Lao government to “…undertake prompt, transparent and thorough investigations, in accordance with their obligations under international human rights law…” and to cooperate with UN bodies in this regard.

January 2014: Upon follow-up, Ng Shui Meng is informed that her application to the Vientiane Provincial Court made on 06 September 2013 had been lost, and hence the status of the application is not known. (see ICJ report “Missed Opportunities.”)

12 February 2014: Ng Shui Meng releases an editorial citing the second EU resolution, noting the lack of Lao government action, and calling on the international community to continue pressure.

Phoumma Khammanichanh21 May 2014: In a letter to John Hogg, President of the Australian Senate, and in response to a motion passed by the Australian Senate, the Lao Ambassador to Australia, Phoumma Khammanichanh, gives assurances that authorities continue to take the case very seriously. However:

  • Due to the unclear CCTV footage, “…many people can not but keep wondering if Mr. Sombath did actually disappear in the place captured by the CCTV.” (Note: Authorities have repeatedly refused assistance in analysing the footage.)
  • The authorities have “…collected some information that may be relevant to the missing of Mr. Sombath Somphone.” (Note: No such information has ever been released.)

June 2014: A number of submissions to the Universal Periodic Review scheduled for Laos in early 2015 highlight the extremely weak nature of the investigation. These include reports from The Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Forum-Asia and Asia-Europe People’s Forum, The International Commission of Jurists, and the International Federation for Human Rights and Lao Movement for Human Rights.

22 July 2014: The International Commission of Jurists issues a letter to Mr. Khamsane Souvong (Lao and English), President of the People’s Supreme Prosecutor following up on Ng Shui Meng’s 03 Septermber 2013 letter, and requesting further information on the investigation. No response is received.

23 September 2014: After traveling to Vientiane, a delegation from Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights release a statement, including:

  • 2014-09-18-14.56.39“The Lao authorities have erected a brick wall of silence on this investigation, so much so that the only intelligent conclusion is that there is in fact no investigation taking place at all and that the obstinacy is part of a cover up for state officials implicated in his abduction.”
  • “The blatant game playing, refusal of assistance and deceptive and at times belligerent answers provided by the Lao authorities when asked for information on the investigation is growing tiresome and reflects badly not just on Lao PDR, but on all of ASEAN.”

The Parliamentarians also noted they were “..shocked by the fear and restrictions with which the Lao state subdued and curtailed its civil society actors,” and also that “…The United Nations Resident Coordinator of the Lao PDR was asked to remove any mention of Sombath’s disappearance from its Universal Periodic Review Submission.”

APHR asks: “If the Lao government really wants to solve this case and is as concerned as the rest of us, then why is it blocking all possible avenues for the investigation?”

2014 RTM17 November 2014: Many donors, particularly the European Union, raise the issue of Sombath’s disappearance and the lack of progress on the government investigation at the Round Table Implementation Meeting. Although the Lao government had expressed great concern and made assurances of continuing investigation during the previous year’s event, it was suggested that participants address “more pending and important issues” this year.

04 December 2014: The International Commission of Jurists issues letters to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Public Security (Lao and English) requesting an update on the investigation. There is no response.

11 December 2014: The International Commission of Jurists issues a report entited Missed Opportunities: Recommendations for Investigating the Disappearance of Sombath Somphone to “provide a benchmark for authorities in the Lao PDR to fulfill their obligations under international law to carry out a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the apparent enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone.” In part, the report concludes:

  • …this case remains eminently solvable.
  • Strong lines of enquiry exist that, if fully exploited, provide a realistic prospect of establishing the truth…
  • If the recommendations contained in this report are professionally and vigorously pursued, this would likely result in a human rights compliant investigation…
  • Even allowing for the time lapse and missed opportunities, there is plenty of precedent…for a successful judicial outcome in this type of case. However, much depends on the position and attitude of the Laotian authorities.
  • As the hypothesis is that agents of the State were involved in the commission of the offence of enforced disappearance, it is likely that real progress will depend on the existence of a strong determination on the part of the investigating, prosecuting, judicial and other authorities to expose the truth…

15 December 2014: Marking two years since Sombath’s disappearance, numerous individuals, organisations and governments from around the world renewed calls for an independent, serious investigation. These included a group of 82 human rights organisations, the International Federation for Human Rights, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, Canada, the European Union, the United States, and others.

Boupha-UPR20 January 2015: At the UN Universal Periodic Review for Laos held in Geneva, an unprecedented ten countries called for an authentic investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, with ten more making clear references to the case and/or calling for Lao ratification of the ICPPED. In an official Lao statement at the review, Phongsavath Boupha, Chairman for the Lao National Steering Committee on Human Rights, again changes course, asserting that because the incident took place in front of a CCTV camera, it proves the state was not involved. The statement also asserts Lao authorities are open to suggestions, while ignoring the scores already made.

24 June 2015: The Lao government responds to the UPR recommendations, including those on Sombath’s enforced disappearance. It accepts some, while merely notes others, claiming that it has and continues to be conducting a serious investigation. The Sombath InitiativeFIDH-LMHRForum-AsiaAmnesty International, and Human Rights Watch issue statements challenging these claims. Lao authorities also accept recommendations to ratify the ICPPED, even though they have not followed through on similar promises made during the first cycle UPR five years ago.

November 2016: Staff from the UN Human Rights Office visit Laos and request to meet with the investigation team. Their request is denied. This is the first known action taken within Laos since Canada and the EU raised Sombath’s disappearance at the 2015 Roundtable one year prior.

30 August 2017: In a Lao Language interview with RFA, Ng Shui Meng reports she requested a meeting with Lao authorities through the Singaporean embassy some two months prior, but did not receive any response.

21 November 2017: Ng Shui Meng meets with Lao goverment authorities at request of Singaporean embassy. While authorities report they are still investigation, no results are shared.

07 December 2017: At a press conference marking five years since Sombath’s disappearance, Ng Shui Meng publicly confirms reports that Sombath and his jeep were seen at a policy facility in the days after his abduction.

June 2018: In its response to a Letter of Issues submitted by the UN Human Rights Council (CCPR), the Lao government asserts it is continuing the investigation. It also reported it had recently briefed Sombath’s spouse and diplomats, although no information was made public.

To date: While calls for a new, more thorough, and/or independent investigation have continued from various international organisations, there has been no evidence since mid-2013, of Sombath’s disappearance being pursued within Laos as either a criminal or civil case.

2 Replies to “The Investigation”

  1. The International Convention for the Protection of all persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED) is an international Human Rights instrument of the United Nations and intended to prevent forced disappearance defined in international law, crimes against humanity. The text was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 20th, 2006 and opened for signature on February 6th, 2007. It entered into force on December 23rd, 2010. As of October 2015, 94 States have signed the convention and 51 have been ratified it. Sombath Somphone was one of the Lao PDR nationality who had been enforced disappearance for more than three years at this time. Where is Sombath Somphone now. As of October 28th, 2015, the UN General Assembly and its Council had been elected 18 Members to the Human Rights Council, Confirmed six states nominated to the floor of the United Nations in NY. Laos had been rejected out from the members of this council, due to a very poor records of human rights abuses, freedom, democracy and justice for all…

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