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Human Rights

Where is Lao activist Sombath Somphone?

Sombath Somphone went missing three months ago after being stopped at a police post. Human rights organizations allege he was 'disappeared' by the authorities.

On Saturday, December 15, 2012 at six o'clock in the evening Sombath Somphone and his wife Ng Shui Meng left work in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. They travelled home in separate cars, agreeing to meet for dinner.

However, Sombath never arrived. Ng Shui Meng lost sight of his jeep near a police post on Thadeua Road.

Security camera footage shows what happened next. The activist was stopped by police and taken into the post. A few minutes later a motorcyclist stopped and drove off in Sombath's jeep. Then a truck came; two people got out, took Sombath and drove off with him. He has not been seen since. His phone can also not be tracked down.

Government is not credible

Relatives and friends of the activist have come up against a wall of silence. Although the government of the one-party state officially says they are looking into his disappearance, human rights organizations believe the authorities are involved.

On December 19, the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement confirming the incidents as recorded on the security camera, but claimed he was kidnapped for personal or business reasons.

"Their denial is simply not credible," Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch told DW. "This person was taken at a police road block. The claim that the police authorities have no idea what happened to a person who was taken from a police checkpoint defies credibility."

He also said that the fact the authorities had denied anyone outside the official investigation access to the CCTV footage was a matter for concern. "They are claiming that they don't provide enough detail on who the persons were or the license plates of the various vehicles. Their argument would be more credible if they provided copies of tapes to Interpol or other international police authorities for rigorous technical examination."

"The government has been continuously holding back information, refusing to engage with the international community."

The director of the German Foundation Asia House Klaus Fritsche is also convinced that the government is involved. "All the circumstances corroborate this," he told DW. "If something like this happened in front of the eyes of the police, it's unlikely that someone else is responsible. But we don't have any hard evidence of course."

Sombath Somphon was the winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005 AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File

Sombath Somphon was the winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005

Unclear what threat Sombath posed

Sombath Somphone is one of the most prominent activists in Laos. He has campaigned for decades for youth training, for the rights of the poor rural population and for the environment.

In the mid-1990s, he founded the Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC), one of the first Lao NGOs. Generally, his activities were approved by the authorities who supported his grassroots work, said Robertson.

Farmers in Laos

Sombath campaigned for the rights of the rural population

And in 2005, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, considered Asia's equivalent to the Nobel Prize.

It is perhaps this renown that has triggered high-ranking international politicians, such as Hillary Clinton or Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, to take up his case.

Human Rights Watch has also tried to enlist the support of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights but have not heard anything back from the commissioners, according to Phil Robertson.

Open questions

What exactly happened to Sombath Somphone and why? Why was he suddenly such a thorn in the side of the Lao government? There are no clear answers to these questions.

However, both Phil Robertson and Klaus Fritsche think his role in the Asia Europe People's Forum is key. Sombath and Asia House were largely responsible for organizing this event ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit that took place in Vientiane in October 2012.

Leaders from Europe and Asia pose for a photo for the ASEM Summit in Vientiane, Laos AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Leaders from Europe and Asia at the ASEM summit in Vientiane

"Of course, many sensitive topics were discussed," said Fritsche. "For example, land rights, corruption and the politics of dams. Government representatives intervened massively to prevent any Lao participants from saying anything critical."

Some refused to be intimidated and suffered the consequences. "People were harassed after the event and even threatened indirectly."

However, nobody had imagined the consequences could be so terrible. "There have been cases of disappearances in the past," said Robertson. "But I think most people believe that someone as prominent as Sombath would be protected by his regional and international reputation, by the fact that he is an award winner, someone who was seen as a respected elder of the development field in Laos. For someone like that to then face this situation makes everyone else look around and realize that they are probably less secure than they thought and that they need to keep their voices down and their opinions to themselves."

"There is much less willingness to speak openly," agreed Fritsch. "Everyone is scared that something could happen to them, too."

"There has been a very chilling effect in terms of freedom of expression," said Robertson. "People are now talking in hushed tones, they are reluctant to put things in emails, to talk on the phone, to hold meetings in their offices."

Three months after he was last seen, Sombath's relatives, friends and supporters have not given up hope. They have set up a website to inform interested parties about the case.

"We can only be optimistic that he is still alive," said Phil Robertson. "We are monitoring the situation very closely and many people believe he is still alive and the authorities may be facing a conundrum about what to do with him, now that they have him."

DW.DE