MISSING ACTIVIST – Laos faces rebuff in UN council seat push
by Achara Ashayagachat
The Lao government's inaction on the disappearance of activist Sombath Sompone would hinder the country's quest for membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a member of the European Union (EU) parliament said yesterday.
Søren Søndergaard, an EU parliamentarian, said Lao authorities told him during his recent visit to the land-locked country they felt sorry about Mr Sombath's disappearance but they did not seem to take any action on the matter.
It was a disappointment that the Lao regime remained in a state of denial, said Mr Søndergaard, from Denmark.
Although it was still unknown whether state officials were involved in his disappearance, it was the regime's responsibility to investigate this case, he said.
Mr Søndergaard's delegation, which included a Belgian adviser and an Indonesian activist, paid a three-day visit to Laos earlier this week.
The group met Saysomphone Phomvilhane, vice-president of the National Assembly; Sayakane Sisouvang, permanent secretary for foreign affairs; and Sisavath Khamsaly, deputy director-general of the Lao Foreign Ministry's Department of Europe and America.
Mr Sombath, a well-respected leader in education and sustainable development in Laos and recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, disappeared on the evening of Dec 15 last year in Vientiane.
“The disappearance took place just six weeks after the Asia-Europe People's Forum, so it gave the EU an extra obligation to push for an investigation in his case,” Mr Søndergaard said. He urged Asean and the international community to apply pressure on Laos to ensure Mr Sombath's safe return to his family.
Mr Søndergaard's visit to Laos is expected to be followed by an EU parliamentary delegation in October.
“Laos has clear objectives for their future and the role of civil society. If they cannot not come up with a clear explanation, we will send a signal to all concerned parties that Laos' application for the membership of the UN Human Rights Council should be blocked,” the MEP said.
Laos plans to run for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in 2016-2018.
The MEP conceded the EU had no stronger measures to pressure Laos to act on Mr Sombath's case.
He said, however, it would be difficult for Laos to seek to upgrade its relations with the EU if it failed to provide an explanation on Mr Sombath's case since doing so would require the EU parliament's endorsement.
He said new EU diplomats assigned to Laos would be asked to question the Laos government about the case again and again and it would not be easy for Vientiane to keep ignoring the case.
Paul-Emile Dupret, adviser of the left-wing European United Left/Nordic Green Left in the European parliament, said he was disturbed to hear Lao civil servants such as Mr Sayakane deny that Mr Sombath's case was an “enforced disappearance”.
Mr Dupret said he was dismayed that Laos has continued to deny it was an enforced disappearance and is back-pedalling from, if not stalling, a police investigation.
Laos urged to intensify probe
A European Union lawmaker pressed Laos on Wednesday to intensify an investigation into the disappearance of a prominent activist, after raising the case during a trip to the secretive communist state.
Sombath Somphone, 62, was last seen in December 2012 being led away by police in Vientiane after his car stopped at a checkpoint.
CCTV images later emerged appearing to show him being driven away with two unidentified people.
The US and EU have joined rights groups in calling for Sombath's safe return, and an official European Parliament delegation is expected to raise his disappearance when it travels to Laos in October.
“The Laos regime is still in a state of denial… what the regime [is doing] to investigate is not sufficient,” Danish MEP Søren Bo Søndergaard told reporters in Bangkok, after returning from Laos on Tuesday.
“Of course there's a lot of words about how sorry they [Lao authorities] feel… but when it comes to the concrete steps that have been taken, things are very unclear,” Sondergaard said.
Søndergaard, whose political group will join the October EU trip, said the EU should heap diplomatic pressure on Laos over the missing man, who has been hailed for his work on poverty reduction and sustainable development in a country that remains one of Southeast Asia's poorest.
Sombath's wife had been told by local police that they were no longer investigating the case, the lawmaker said, adding a senior foreign ministry official had even questioned whether the man apparently kidnapped in the CCTV footage was Sombath.
The Laos government has repeatedly denied Sombath was taken by them or is in their hands.
To turn up the heat, the EU must obstruct Laos' efforts to join international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, Søndergaard added.
Laos is a one-party communist state which exerts total control over the media and does not tolerate criticism of its institutions.
In recent years observers had detected signs it was easing its attitude to civil society groups as it seeks greater engagement with the outside world, but Sombath's case has cast doubt over those efforts.
“There's a conspiracy of silence in Laos,” said Mugiyanto of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, who travelled with the EU delegation to Laos.
Activists are now “afraid to talk about what happened to Sombath”, Mugiyanto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, added.
EU-led delegation finds Laos “in denial” about forced disappearance
International Service in English
Laos is ignoring the disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone but should not expect the European Union to drop his case, an EU parliamentarian warned Wednesday.
“The Lao regime is still in a state of denial,” said Søren Bo Søndergaard, a Danish member of the European Parliament who led a delegation to Vientiane on Monday and Tuesday to “send a signal to the regime that this case will not go away.”
Sombath, an outspoken member of communist Laos' fledgling civil society, was detained at a police checkpoint in Vientiane on December 15, where CCTV footage captured images of him being forced to get into a truck and driven away. He has not been seen since.
An official European Parliament delegation will travel to Vientiane on October 28 to investigate Sombath's disappearance in follow-up to a resolution passed in February calling on the Lao government to resolve the case.
Søndergaard, of the left-leaning GUE/NGL group, made the comments during a press conference in Bangkok, and will present his own findings to the European Parliament in preparation for the October mission.
While expressing concerns about Sombath's disappearance, the Lao parliamentarians and officials who met the delegation suggested that the case could not be solved. A foreign ministry official questioned whether it was Sombath who had been captured on the CCTV footage, Søndergaard said.
“This case will continue to be taken up until it is solved, either with Sombath coming back in good health or with a full explanation to his wife and friends on what happened,” he said.
While stopping short of calling for economic sanctions on Laos, the Danish parliamentarian noted that the EU could easily block Laos' ambition to sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council or to graduate from its current status as a least developed country (LDC) as a means of applying pressure on the country, one of the world's few remaining communist regimes.
Renewed pressure over case of missing Lao activist
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News
Laos has come under renewed pressure over the disappearance late last year of the internationally-recognised development worker and teacher, Sombath Somphone.
The Lao government is investigating the incident but has previously claimed it knows nothing about the social activists' whereabouts.
It's believed Mr Sombath was on a busy road in Vientiane on December 15, 2012.
Human Rights Watch has previously accused the government of a “cover up”, saying authorities had failed to credibly explain his disappearance.
The delegation, led by Søren Søndergaard, a member of the European parliament, has just completed a visit to Laos to meet with senior government officials there to discuss the matter.
“Our key message was that it is impossible in a country like theirs to accept that a person can disappear a few metres in front of a police control station, taken on camera, everything is taken on camera, and despite of that, eight months have gone without any result in the investigation,” Mr Sondergaard told .
He says the response he was given was that Laotian authorities need more time to investigate.
Soon after Mr Sombath's disappearance, CCTV footage surfaced, showing him being stopped by traffic police before his car is driven away by an unidentified person.
Mr Sombath is then seen being taken away in another vehicle with up to 3 other people.
'Accept outside assistance'
Laotian authorities have so far refused outside offers of assistance and Mr Sondergaard is appealing for them to accept offers to analyse the vision.
“They say they are not able to see the number plates on the film they have from where the things happened, but there are countries that have very sophisticated equipment for that, so it would be natural to give the tape to such countries so they can help them. But they are not willing to do that,” he said.
They have a responsibility to clear up this case and they have to use all means. It is unacceptable in every country that citizens are disappearing.”
An official EU delegation is scheduled to visit in October and Mr Søndergaard has warned that if that visit fails to provide a solution to the case of Mr Sombath, he will present a new resolution to the European parliament.
Le Laos enjoint à relancer l'enquête sur la disparition d'un important militant
Agence France Presse
De retour du Laos, un député européen danois a appelé mercredi le régime communiste à relancer l'enquête sur la disparition d'un important militant de la société civile, vu pour la dernière fois il y a près de neuf mois près d'un poste de police.
“Le régime laotien est toujours dans le déni”, a critiqué lors d'une conférence de presse à Bangkok le député européen Søren Bo Søndergaard. Il a pu rencontrer au Laos des responsables du régime, qui exerce un pouvoir sans partage sur le pays depuis 1975, ainsi que la femme de Sombath Somphone.
Celle-ci a assuré à la délégation européenne que les autorités lui avaient annoncé la fin de l'enquête. Sombath Somphone, 62 ans au moment de sa disparition, est le fondateur de l'ONG Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC).
Ce membre très respecté de la société civile laotienne a disparu le 15 décembre 2012 à Vientiane alors qu'il rentrait chez lui en voiture. Des images prises par des caméras de surveillance le montrent s'éloignant d'un poste de police avec deux individus non identifiés.
Un responsable de la diplomatie laotienne a dit au député européen que les images montraient peut-être quelqu'un d'autre que le militant.
Une nouvelle visite d'une délégation européenne est prévue en octobre, a précisé le député, appelant l'Union européenne à faire pression sur le Laos en lui fermant la participation à des instances internationales comme le Conseil des droits de l'Homme des Nations unies, basé à Genève.
En mars, le secrétaire d'Etat américain John Kerry avait appelé les autorités laotiennes à mener l'enquête “sans délai” sur la disparition de Sombath Somphone.
En février, le Parlement européen avait déjà fait part dans une résolution de sa “vive inquiétude” quant au sort du militant, se disant préoccupé par la “lenteur” de l'enquête.
Le régime communiste jure de son côté n'être en rien responsable de cette disparition, et estime que Sombath Somphone a peut-être été “kidnappé”.