Laos: Unresolved fate of civil rights activist

Sombath Somphone
Political article
Seven years ago the civil society activist Sombath Somphone was kidnapped in Laos. Organizations from around the world are appealing to the Laotian government to tell the truth about Sombath Somphone's fate.

Alliance Sud is among the many signatories of this open letter on the anniversary of the kidnapping of Sombath Somphone.

Civil society groups urge Laos, Thailand to investigate enforced disappearances, reveal fate of Sombath Somphone and Od Sayavong

15 December 2019: On the seventh anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned organizations, urge the Lao and Thai governments to investigate enforced disappearances, and demand Vientiane finally reveal Sombath’s whereabouts and ensure justice for him and his family.

Considering the Lao police’s protracted failure to effectively investigate Sombath’s enforced disappearance, a new independent and impartial investigative body tasked with determining Sombath’s fate and whereabouts should be established without delay. The new body should have the authority to seek and receive international technical assistance in order to conduct a professional, independent, impartial, and effective investigation in accordance with international standards.

Sombath was last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street of the Lao capital, Vientiane, on the evening of 15 December 2012. Footage from a CCTV camera showed that Sombath’s vehicle was stopped at the police checkpoint and that, within minutes, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove him away in the presence of police officers. CCTV footage also showed an unknown individual driving Sombath’s vehicle away from the city center. The presence of police officers at Sombath’s abduction and their failure to intervene strongly indicates state agents’ participation in Sombath’s enforced disappearance.

Lao authorities have repeatedly claimed they have been investigating Sombath’s enforced disappearance but have failed to disclose any new findings to the public since 8 June 2013. They have met with Sombath’s wife, Shui Meng Ng, only twice since January 2013 – the last time in December 2017. No substantive information about the investigation has been shared by the police with the family, indicating that, for all intents and purposes, the police investigation has been de facto suspended.

We also call on the Lao and Thai governments to resolve all cases of enforced disappearances in their countries. The most recent case is that of Od Sayavong, a Lao refugee living in Bangkok, who has been missing since 26 August 2019. Over the past several years, Od engaged publicly in drawing attention to human rights abuses and corruption in Laos, and met with the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights on 15 March 2019 in Bangkok, prior to the latter’s mission to Laos. The concerns regarding Od’s case were expressed in a joint statement that the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and three Special Rapporteurs issued on 1 October 2019.[1]

We would also like to draw particular attention to reports that Ittiphon Sukpaen, Wuthipong Kachathamakul, Surachai Danwattananusorn, Chatcharn Buppawan, and Kraidej Luelert, five Thai critics of the monarchy and Thailand’s military government living in exile in Laos, went missing between June 2016 and December 2018. In the case of the latter three, the bodies of Chatcharn and Kraidej were found about two weeks later on the Thai side of the Mekong River, mutilated and stuffed with concrete, while a third body - possibly Surachai’s - reportedly surfaced nearby and then disappeared. DNA tests carried out in January 2019 confirmed the identity of Chatcharn and Kraidej.

We call on the Lao and Thai governments to investigate these cases in line with international legal standards with a view towards determining their fate and whereabouts.

Both the Lao and Thai governments have the legal obligation to conduct such prompt, thorough and impartial investigations and to bring all individuals suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law and gross human rights violations to justice in fair trials.

We also urge the Lao and Thai governments to promptly ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Laos and Thailand signed in September 2008 and January 2012 respectively, to incorporate the Convention’s provisions into their domestic legal frameworks, implementing it in practice, and to recognize the competence of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of victims or other states parties.

Finally, we call on the international community to use the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos to demand the Lao government promptly and effectively investigate the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone. The third UPR of Laos is scheduled to be held on 21 January 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland.

During the second UPR of Laos in January 2015, 10 United Nations member states (Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) recommended the Lao government conduct an adequate investigation into Sombath’s enforced disappearance.

Until the fate and whereabouts of those who are forcibly disappeared are revealed, the international community should not stop demanding that they be safely returned to their families. The Lao government should be under no illusion that our demands

 

[1] OHCHR, Thailand/Lao PDR: UN experts concerned by disappearance of Lao human rights defender, 1 October 2019, available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25087&LangID=E