The ICJ today urged the Lao PDR government to reverse its inaction in determining the fate of community activist Sombath Somphone, who was allegedly subjected to enforced disappearance a year ago.
In a legal memorandum on the one-year anniversary of Sombath’s enforced disappearance, the ICJ called on the Lao authorities to fulfill their country’s obligations under international law and carry out a thorough and impartial investigation into his whereabouts.
It also said the government must cooperate with regional and international human rights mechanisms, particularly the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
“It is deplorable that one year after Sombath Somphone was abducted after being stopped by traffic police, the public prosecutor has yet to institute formal
or criminal proceedings into his disappearance’’, said Sam Zarifi, ICJ Asia-Pacific regional director.
“The government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic must immediately take effective measure to ensure animpartial and thorough investigation and bring justice to those responsible for crimes against Sombath Somphone,” he added.
Sixty-two-year old Sombath Somphone, Lao PDR’s most prominent community development advocate and a Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, was last seen on December 15, 2013, on a road in the capital Vientiane.
Closed circuit Television (CCTV) footage showed him being stopped at a police checkpoint, exiting his vehicle, getting into another vehicle with unidentified men and being driven away. He has not been seen since.
The Lao PDR government has denied any involvement in Sombath Somphone’s abduction. But reports released by police reveal a wholly inadequate investigation that lacks any credible explanation as to his fate or whereabouts.
In January this year, the ICJ called on the AICHR to play a proactive role in the case and to use the opportunity to address issues of enforced and involuntary disappearances in the region. To date, the AICHR has yet to take any meaningful action.
If the AICHR is to have any meaning, it must fulfill its mandate under Article 4, paragraph 1.11 of its Terms of Reference and develop a common position and strategy for tackling the widespread impunity of all acts of enforced disappearances in ASEAN, the legal memorandum said.
“An effective investigation, conducted in accordance with international standards, is essential in order that family members of Sombath Somphone and the public as a whole may discover the truth about his fate and whereabouts, and bring justice and reparation,’’ said Zarifi.
Sombath Somphone is the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC), a non-governmental organization that supports holistic education and youth development as well as promoting eco-friendly technologies and micro-enterprises.
In October 2012, Sombath assisted the Lao government and non-governmental organizations convene an Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF). The event was widely attended, drawing 948 participants from Lao PDR as well as other Asian countries.
It was the first time groups publicly criticized human rights abuses in Lao PDR, a Communist-run Southeast Asian country bordering Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China.
The legal memorandum also covers the right of a family member to the right to information in such cases of enforced disappearances pursuant to both international standards as well as domestic laws in Lao PDR.
The key recommendations in the legal memorandum include:
(a) The public prosecutor, to launch a credible, prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigation into the fate and whereabouts of Sombath Somphone. In the event that the public prosecutor fails to do so, an independent and credible authority should be established to undertake prompt, thorough and impartial investigation, consistent with international standards, into the alleged enforced disappearance as well as allegations of arbitrary detention, torture or ill-treatment;
(b) In furtherance of this investigation, the investigating authority should immediately seek and accept assistance from foreign experts on analysis of forensic evidence; and
(c) The investigating authority should provide relevant material and conclusions from any investigation to Sombath Somphone’s wife, to the extent compatible with the prosecution of the case.
Sam Zarifi, ICJ Asia-Pacific Regional Director, (Bangkok), t:+66 807819002, e-mail: sam.zarifi(a)icj.org
Craig Knowles, ICJ Media & Communications, (Bangkok), t:+66 819077653, e-mail: craig.knowles(a)icj.org