A human rights group on Thursday accused authorities in Laos of holding a prominent social leader following his disappearance after being taken into police custody, saying his case has contributed to a “deepening climate of fear” for activists in the country.
Sombath Somphone, 60, was last seen in police custody before being taken away by unidentified men in a truck on Saturday night, according to surveillance video provided to his family by police.
The government in a statement denied responsibility for the disappearance of Sombath and suggested that he had been kidnapped over a personal dispute.
Sombath, the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Laos, received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005 as a result of his work in the fields of education and development across Asia.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Thursday that the circumstances surrounding the case of his disappearance “indicate that Lao authorities took him into custody, raising concerns for his safety.”
“The Lao government needs to immediately reveal Sombath’s location and release him,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Lao authorities should come clean on the enforced disappearance of this prominent social leader and take steps to stem the deepening climate of fear his disappearance has caused.”
Based on the closed-circuit television footage, Sombath was taken to a roadside police station in the capital city Vientiane on Saturday night after the car he was driving was stopped by traffic police, a relative who wished to remain anonymous told RFA’s Lao Service on Wednesday.
The footage, which relatives posted online on Wednesday, shows—according to the relative—a man arriving on a motorbike at the police station while Sombath is inside, then leaving and coming back with other men in a truck to pick him up. He did not appear to be coerced, though the truck clearly leaves in a hurry.
She said police had shown the family the footage on Monday, but did not provide any explanation of who took him away or why he had been allowed to leave the station.
The activist’s wife, Ng Shui Meng, last saw Sombath in Vientiane, when they both left the PADETC office around 5:00 p.m. on Saturday in separate cars.
Human Rights Watch said it was concerned that Sombath had been taken into custody by Lao authorities and that he “could be at serious risk of ill-treatment.”
The Associated Press on Thursday reported that the Lao government had disavowed responsibility for Sombath’s disappearance in a statement on the website of state news agency KPL, which also acknowledged receiving appeals from Sombath's wife and a copy of the video.
"Following the preliminary assessment of the incident from the CCTV footage, the authorities concerned viewed that it may be possible Mr. Sombath has been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business," the statement said.
Family members told RFA’s Lao Service on Wednesday that they were not aware of Sombath being embroiled in any disagreements with other people and said the activist had not lent or borrowed money.
“The Lao authorities should recognize that Sombath’s years of development work have earned him important friends around the world, and that the clamor for his release is not going to go away,” Adams said.
“Instead of ignoring inquiries from his families, diplomats, and civil society, Lao authorities should immediately reveal his location and return him to his family.”
Call for investigation
The rights group called for a “prompt, credible, and impartial investigation of Sombath’s enforced disappearance, and the appropriate prosecution of all those responsible.”
It noted that enforced disappearances are defined as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the fate or whereabouts of the person.
Human Rights Watch also called on Lao authorities to take steps to end arbitrary arrests and secret detentions, including making enforced disappearance a criminal offense and becoming a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
“Consistent with international law, anyone detained by law enforcement and security forces must be held at recognized places of detention, be provided all due process rights including access to family and legal counsel, and be protected from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,” it said.
“The Lao authorities should realize that the risk to their international reputation grows by leaps and bounds every day Sombath’s whereabouts remain unknown,” Adams said.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.