Probe into missing Laos activist a 'farce': rights groups

Supporters of community leader Sombath Somphone gathered outside the Lao embassy in Vientiane, Bangkok on Dec 15, 2013.
Supporters of community leader Sombath Somphone gathered outside the Lao embassy in Vientiane, Bangkok on Dec 15, 2013.PHOTO: ST FILE

Bangkok (AFP) - An investigation into the disappearance of Laotian activist Sombath Somphone three years ago is "a farce" and has had a chilling effect on civil society, rights groups said Monday.

Sombath, an award-winning campaigner for sustainable development, vanished from the streets of Vientiane after he was pulled over at a police checkpoint on the evening of December 15, 2012.

CCTV cameras in the Laos capital captured the moment his battered jeep stopped at the checkpoint before he is later seen getting into an unknown vehicle.

His case has cast a dark cloud over civil society in Laos, an impoverished tightly-controlled communist country.

It has also raised the issue of impunity for powerful state and business interests held responsible for routinely killing or "disappearing" activists across the region.

Rights groups accuse local authorities of failing to carry out even the most cursory of investigations and withholding information.

"The official investigation so far has been a farce. It is a bad joke," Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, told reporters in Thailand.

The apathy has had a chilling effect on activist groups and civil society, he added, speaking at a press briefing to mark the anniversary of Sombath's disappearance.

"The message to the Laos people from their government is: we can take anyone at anytime so shut up, sit down and do as we tell you," Robertson said.

New CCTV footage obtained by Sombath's family shows his jeep - which has never been found - being driven in the opposite direction than had been previously assumed.

Activists said this pointed to holes in the investigation.

"This case is eminently solvable," said Sam Zarifi, from the International Commission of Jurists.

He said a lack of political will - not a lack of evidence - has stymied the probe.

Laos is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and is set to host next year's summit for the ten-member block.

But breaking a 10-year tradition, there will be no ASEAN Peoples' Forum in 2016 and HRW said it was a deliberate move by the Laos government which it said was reluctant to allow discussion of Sombath's disappearance and other sensitive issues.

"Not content to just censor the Laos people, the leaders of Vientiane now want to censor the regional dialogue in ASEAN," Robertson said.

Enforced disappearances are an ugly reality across the region, where powerful business interests and murky state actors stand accused of routinely making opponents vanish.

While data is scarce, rights campaigners say likely hundreds of people have vanished across Southeast Asia in the past two decades, often after coming up against local business, criminal or political interests.