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One year on, NGOs call for new investigation into Laotian activist's enforced disappearance

Sombath Somphone (on the left, wearing a gold-hued jacket) appears with other winners of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards during a ceremony in Manila, Philippines, 31 August 2005
Sombath Somphone (on the left, wearing a gold-hued jacket) appears with other winners of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards during a ceremony in Manila, Philippines, 31 August 2005

REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco RR/DY

We, the undersigned 62 regional and international organizations, express outrage over the Lao Government's ongoing failure to shed light on the enforced disappearance of prominent activist and civil society leader Sombath Somphone.

December 15, 2013 marks the one-year anniversary of Sombath's disappearance. Sombath was last seen on the evening of December 15, 2012 in Vientiane. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage showed that police stopped Sombath's car at a police post. Within minutes after being stopped, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove away. Analysis of the CCTV footage shows that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers. This fact supports a finding of government complicity.

Despite the Lao Government's pledge to "thoroughly and seriously" investigate Sombath's disappearance, the authorities' probe has been inadequate and unproductive. On January 18, 2013, 65 NGOs signed a joint letter to Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong to express their concern over Sombath's disappearance. Since then and in spite of widespread international calls for his return, including from the European Union (EU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) parliamentarians, the USA and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sombath's whereabouts remain unknown and there has been no progress in the investigation into the circumstances of his enforced disappearance. In addition, the authorities have rejected offers of technical assistance to analyze the CCTV footage.

For the past 30 years, Sombath has pushed tirelessly for expansion for civil society space and rights of the rural poor and young people to have a voice in the development of Lao society and governance. Shortly before his disappearance, Sombath played a key role in organising the Asia-Europe People's Forum (AEPF), a civil society forum that preceded the official Asia-Europe Summit Meeting. At the forum, discussions on land and water issues, and poorly regulated FDIs which threatened people's livelihoods were discussed openly for the first time in Laos.

Sombath's enforced disappearance is not an isolated incident. To this day, the whereabouts of nine people, two women, Kingkeo and Somchit, as well as seven men, Soubinh, Souane, Sinpasong, Khamsone, Nou, Somkhit, and Sourigna, arbitrarily detained by Lao security forces in November 2009 in various locations across the country remain unknown. The nine had planned peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy and respect of human rights. Also unknown are the whereabouts of Somphone Khantisouk, the owner of an ecotourism guesthouse and an outspoken critic of Chinese-sponsored agricultural projects that were damaging the environment in the northern province of Luang Namtha. He disappeared after uniformed men abducted him in January 2007.

The Lao Government's failure to undertake proper investigations into all these cases of enforced disappearances violates its obligations under Article 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Laos is a State party. The ICCPR states that governments must provide an “effective remedy” for violations of rights guaranteed by the Covenant, including the right to liberty and security of person.

We call on the Lao Government to:

Establish a new commission tasked with carrying out a prompt, thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into Sombath's enforced disappearance and return him safely to his family.

Identify and hold accountable those responsible for Sombath's enforced disappearance.
Undertake a thorough, impartial, and effective investigation into all allegations of enforced disappearances.
Extend an invitation for a country visit by the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
Ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
Respect and protect the rights of all human rights defenders, activists, and members of civil society.

We call on the international community, particularly EU Member States, ASEAN Member States, and the U.S., to:

Raise the issue of Sombath Somphone's enforced disappearance with the Lao Government in all bilateral and multilateral fora.
Urge the Lao Government to immediately release all political prisoners and conduct effective and thorough investigations aimed at safely returning victims of enforced disappearances to their families.
Exert political and economic pressure on the Lao Government to ensure the promotion of reforms that guarantee respect for fundamental human rights in accordance with its international obligations.

Signed by:

Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma)
Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA, Afghanistan
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), India
Boat People SOS
Burma Partnership
Bytes for All, Pakistan
Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, Cambodia
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Cambodia
Cambodian Volunteers for Society, Cambodia
Campaign for a Life of Dignity for All (KAMP), Philippines
Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), Mongolia
Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), Indonesia
Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Cambodia
FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)
Front Line Defenders
Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas, Philippines
Globe International Center, Mongolia
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Pakistan
Human Rights Defenders Alert, India
Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB), Burma
Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), Indonesia
Imparsial, Indonesia
Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI), Indonesia
Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), Indonesia
Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), Nepal
INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka
Institute for Legal Consultation and People Advocacy of North Sumatera (BAKUMSU), Indonesia
ISchool-Myanmar, Burma
Judicial System Monitoring Program (JSMP), Timor Leste
Justice for Peace Foundation, Thailand
Knights for Peace, Int'l
Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia, Indonesia
Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR)
Law and Society Trust (LST), Sri Lanka
League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI)
Life Skills Development Foundation, Thailand
Odhikar, Bangladesh
People's Empowerment Foundation (PEF), Thailand
People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), South Korea
People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), India
People's Watch, India
Programme Against Custodial Torture and Impunity (PACTI), India
Sawit Watch, Indonesia
Sehjira Deaf/HoH Foundation, Indonesia
Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), Pakistan
Solidarity for Asian Peoples' Advocacies Working Group on ASEAN (SAPA WG on ASEAN)
South East Asian Committee for Advocacy (SEACA)
Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), Malaysia
Taiwan Association for Human Rights, (TAHR), Taiwan
Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), Philippines
Think Centre, Singapore
Thinzar Shunlei Yi Myanmar, Burma
Timor Leste National Alliance for International Tribunal (ANTI), Timor Leste
Union for Civil Liberty (UCL), Thailand
Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR)
WomanHealth Philippines, Philippines
World Organization Against Towrture (OMCT)
Yayasan Mandiri Kreatif Indonesia, Indonesia
Yayasan Transformasi Lepra Indonesia, Indonesia
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