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Pressure on Vientiane over abduction of acclaimed activist

Authorities in Laos are under growing international pressure over the disappearance of prominent activist and Magsaysay award-winner Sombath Somphone, who went missing on December 15.



Lao exiles living overseas say they believe the government abducted Sombath - and they called on Vientiane to free him.

After concern was raised by the United Nations, Lao ambassador to Geneva Yong Chanthalangsay sent an official explanation and clarification to the UN Human Rights Council last Friday. He maintained the same old stance that Sombath was abducted by unknown men because of personal reasons or a business conflict.

"The Lao government has grave concern over the incident and gives importance to the investigation to find out the truth," Yong said in a letter to the UN.

However, the official letter to the UN did not provide any new information about Sombath. It mostly repeated the previous statement issued by the Lao foreign ministry on December 20.

In the letter, Laos expressed its "strong commitment" to adhere to at least seven international agreements on human rights that Vientiane has signed over the years.

Laos is a party to the convention on forced disappearance but has not yet ratified it. The country was preparing to comply with all international instruments on human rights, Yong said in the letter and noted that Laos has a constitution and internal law compatible with international treaties on human rights.

Sombath went missing on the evening of December 15 while driving home from his office in the capital, Vientiane. A video clip from a closed-circuit television show that he was stopped by police before being taken by a group of unknown men to an unknown destination.

The official letter to the UN said the video clip did not prove that Sombath was forced by anybody into a pickup truck seen in the clip taking two men away. "This is different from the UN report which says earlier he was forced into the truck," it said.

Three weeks after Sombath's disappearance, the international community has ramped up its campaign to pile pressure on the authorities in Vientiane to search for him and take responsibility for his alleged disappearance.

Overseas Laotians under the umbrella of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos (ADL) believe that state agencies were involved in the abduction of Sombath.

Judging from the video clip from the closed circuit television, the ADL said: "This modus operandi is nothing new, just like the way this has happened previously to hundreds of other patriotic democracy activists."

In a statement signed by ADL President Bounthone Chantalavaong-Wiese, the group called for President Choummaly Sayasone and Premier Thongsing Thammavong, who wield ultimate power, to assume responsibility and set Sombath free immediately and unconditionally.

"We appeal to international community to pressure upon the Lao government to urgently create the conditions which are conducive to democratisation," Bounthone said in the statement.


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