Lao govt must act on 'disppearance'
Open letter to HE Thongsing Thammavong, Prime Minister, Lao People's Democratic Republic:
Your Excellency, we, 61 national, regional and international human-rights organisations, express grave concern over the lack of progress and information regarding investigations into the fate and whereabouts of Sombath Somphone. He has been missing for over three weeks and, to date, the investigations appear to be lacking or ineffective. Our organisations fear that he may have been subjected to enforced disappearance.
The Lao government has so far only released two statements that were mere denials and were not helpful to the efforts to find Sombath. The first was released by the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 19. The second was a response by Laos' ambassador to queries from the UN Human Rights Council's Special Procedures on January 4. In both statements the government maintained it had no knowledge or involvement in the "disappearance" of Sombath.
We wish to reiterate that CCTV footage obtained by his family shows that Sombath was last seen with police at the Thadeau police post on December 15 at around 5pm. The claim of the government that Sombath's "disappearance" is a private affair involving personal or business conflict is unacceptable. The government must look closely into the circumstances of Sombath's disappearance, considering that he went missing a short time after he was stopped by police and within the vicinity of a police outpost. The government should fully disclose all information relating to the interface and interaction that any government officials or security personnel have had with Sombath. This includes all information regarding the events of December 15.
On December 26 police questioned Sombath's wife, Shui-Meng Ng, for basic information regarding his background and lifestyle, during preliminary investigations. When she was called in again on January 15, the police again queried her on similar procedural questions, such as when they got married and when they moved into their current home. This apparent stagnation in the investigation is clearly unacceptable. There are critical questions that remain unanswered, such as whether Sombath's jeep has been found, the identity of the motorcyclist who took his jeep and whether the police in the CCTV have been identified and investigated.
Sombath's work has been profoundly integral to the lives of ordinary people in Laos. He has been deeply involved in educating and building the capacity of youth, initiating alternative sustainable-development models and tackling rural poverty. His work is important in a country that last year posted the fastest growth in Southeast Asia. In the relentless pursuit of growth and development, the work of groups and individuals like Sombath is especially critical in ensuring that growth is inclusive and equitable.
The "disappearance" of Sombath creates a climate of fear and sends a chilling message to the still-fledgling civil society of Laos. It is therefore important that an enabling environment for rights defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights, including development workers, is created and cultivated.
The "disappearance" of Sombath is a test of the commitment of the government of Laos to promote and protect human rights. We remind the government of its commitment under Article 13(1) of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. It provides that, in instances where there is an allegation that a person has been subjected to an enforced disappearance, the state shall ensure that the complaint is promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigated by a competent and independent state authority.
Furthermore, as a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, it must refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty. We also urge the government to ratify and implement the convention and to acknowledge the competence of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances.
We demand justice and the immediate safe return of Sombath.
A list of the signatory organisations to this letter is available on www.forum-asia.org.
East Asia Programme Officer,