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Laos: Alleged enforced disappearance of human rights defender Mr Sombath Somphone
On 15 December 2012, human rights defender Mr Sombath Somphone disappeared after last being seen driving away from his office. Since then, his whereabouts have been unknown, although sources have reported having seen video footage of the human rights defender in the custody of the police.
Sombath Somphone is the founder and executive director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), which trains young people in order to promote sustainable development. For his community development work he was awarded one of Asia's most prestigious civil awards, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, in 2005.
Sombath Somphone left the offices of PADETC in Vientiane at around 5pm on 15 December. When he failed to come home that night, his wife searched for him in the city's hospitals before eventually reporting him missing with the police. On 18 December, an official from the government press office reportedly commented on the phone that there was not yet enough evidence to draw any conclusions about the case. Family members of Sombath Somphone have lodged a complaint with the police who deny all knowledge of the case.
An anonymous colleague of the human rights defender has, however, reported that on 17 December, relatives of Sombath Somphone were shown CCTV footage of his car being stopped by police officers around 6pm in the vicinity of Vatnak village in Sisattanak district, Vientiane The footage then reportedly showed the human rights defender being led to the Sisattanak district police station in Vientiane, and some time later showed Sombath Somphone being led out of the office and taken away in a white pick-up truck.
On 20 December, the Laos Foreign Ministry came up with the statement stating “the authorities are not in a position to say exactly what has actually happened, why Sombath Somphone has gone missing, or who might have been involved in the incident”. The Ministry alleges that it might be possible that the human rights defender was kidnapped due to personal or business conflict.
Sombath Somphone founded PADETC in 1996, and since the organisation has become a prominent player in Lao civil society. The organisation works in numerous fields to promote sustainable development through the education of young people in particular. Although the organisation's work is not political in nature, it is alleged that Sombath Somphone may have been targeted by government authorities due to his opposition to state development projects with harmful social or environmental consequences.
Front Line Defenders is concerned by the allegations of enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, in the light of the important work he has carried out defending human rights in Laos and promoting sustainable development through developing the capacities and leadership skills of young people.