US calls on Laos to investigate activist’s disappearance

Sombath pictured with South African human rights icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2006. Photo: Shui-Meng Ng/Wikimedia Commons.

Washington has called on the Lao government to “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation” into the disappearance three years ago of rights activist Sombath Somphone.

“Three years ago yesterday, land rights activist Sombath Somphone was abducted from a police  checkpoint in Vientiane, Laos,” John Kirby, assistant secretary at the US Bureau of Public Affairs said on Wednesday.

“The United States remains deeply concerned over his fate and the chilling message his abduction sends to members of civil society and the people of Laos more broadly.

“We are troubled by the fact that no progress has been made in locating Mr Somphone and call on the Lao Government to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation. The government should take measures to resolve this case immediately.

“Our thoughts are with Mr Somphone’s family, friends, and so many others who have benefitted from his leadership.

Laos has denied that its security officials were behind Sombath’s 2012 disappearance, though critics say the communist regime that has ruled Laos since 1975 may have seen his activism as a threat.

Meanwhile, the UN and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said police in Laos refused to view new footage of Sombath’s abduction.

Laurent Meillan of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the abduction had created “a culture of fear” among NGO workers in Laos.

“We are not aware of any progress since the government’s commitment at the UN Human Rights Council,” Meillan said, referring to an assurance by Vientiane that it would bring the kidnappers to justice.

Human Rights Watch said the human rights situation in Laos had worsened since Sombath’s abduction.

“A veil of silence has fallen over Sombath’s case,” said deputy Asia director Phil Robertson. “International NGOs working in Laos say they are sympathetic but they can’t talk about it.”

US President Barack Obama is expected to visit Laos next autumn when it hosts a summit of East Asian leaders.

He would be the first US president to visit the country, which was heavily bombed by the US in the so-called ‘secret war’ of the 1960s and 1970s, as Washington fought communists in neighbouring Vietnam.

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