The government of Laos yesterday disavowed responsibility for the disappearance of a respected social activist and suggested he had been kidnapped over a personal dispute. The statement did little to allay fears he is being held by government security forces.
Sombath Somphone, 60, is believed to be in state custody after CCTV footage showed him being detained by police, his car driven away and then him being driven away separately in the company of two unidentified men. He has not been seen or heard from since the incident on Saturday.
Sombath’s Singaporean wife, Ng Shui Meng, in an appeal on Wednesday to the Laotian government, described the video footage that showed her husband’s encounter late on Saturday at a police post in the Laotian capital, Vientiane.
What purports to be a copy of the video has now been posted on YouTube.
“It is now nearly four days since the disappearance of my husband and I have yet to hear anything of his whereabouts,” she wrote, appealing to the government “to please investigate my husband’s disappearance as soon as possible, release information of his whereabouts and ensure his safety.”
Friends and colleagues of Sombath insist he has no known enemies.
Laos has an authoritarian government with little tolerance for dissent, but friends and associates said Sombath’s work was neither directly political nor confrontational.
Sombath, 60, received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, one of Asia’s top civil honors, in 2005. He was director until five months ago of the Participatory Development Training Center, which he founded in 1996 to promote education and leadership skills. He is also involved in a small enterprise selling village handicrafts.
The statement by the Laotian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, dated on Wednesday and posted on the Web site of the state news agency KPL, acknowledges receiving appeals from Sombath’s wife and a copy of the video.
It says it shows his car had been stopped for a routine check, and relates many of the same details described by Sombath’s wife, of a man arriving on a motorcycle, Sombath’s jeep being driven away and a pickup truck with hazard lights arriving and later departing with at least two men “to an unknown destination.” It said the men could not be identified and there was no sign of them being forced to get into the vehicle.
“Following the preliminary assessment of the incidence [sic] 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.
It added that “authorities concerned are currently and seriously investigating.”
The statement from the Laotian government spokesman failed to satisfy those worried about Sombath’s safety.
“The Lao government needs to immediately reveal Sombath’s location and release him,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in statement issued yesterday.
“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.