Laos urged to fast-track missing activist inquiry

Asean MPs return from visit, ramp up pressure

Asean parliamentarians have urged the Lao government to conduct a fast-track investigation into the disappearance of Lao activist Sombath Somphone.

Sombath: Concern for welfare mounts

Mr Sombath, who won the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, disappeared on Dec 15 last year.

CCTV footage showed him being stopped in his jeep by traffic police on the outskirts of Vientiane.

His vehicle was driven away by an unknown person. He was taken away in a pickup truck, and his whereabouts are still a mystery.

Asean MPs are concerned about Mr Sombath's disappearance. They met senior Lao government officials and members of the Lao National Assembly in Vientiane from Sunday to Tuesday.

The three spoke to the media at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand in Bangkok yesterday about their trip.

Philippines MP Walden Bello said police have made little progress in their investigation. He said most Lao officials insisted there was no evidence Mr Sombath entered the pickup truck that appeared in the CCTV footage.

"We were told that after a month of investigation the only thing that has been established is the police had nothing to do with it," Mr Bello said.

He said Lao officials suspected Mr Sombath might have been kidnapped but the Asean MPs said that made no sense because no ransom had been demanded.

The Asean MPs gave investigators a list of possible circumstances regarding the activist's disappearance to push the Lao government to speed up the probe.

He said Mr Sombath might have been abducted by a rogue element in the Lao government. They had asked the permanent secretary of the Lao Foreign Affairs Ministry, Sakayane Sisouvong, to investigate.

The Asean delegates suspected Mr Sombath's disappearance could be linked to the Asia Europe People's Forum (AEPF), which Mr Sombath helped organise with the Lao foreign ministry last October.

He raised the issue of environmental degradation and illegal land acquisition.

Mr Bello said Mr Sombath's disappearance might also be connected to the Lao government's decision to expel the head of the Swiss NGO Helvetas, Anne-Sophie Grindroz, for allegedly criticising the government.

She was expelled a week before Mr Sombath disappeared.

A senior Lao official, however, denied Mr Sombath's disappearance was connected to either the AEPF or to Ms Grindroz.

Malaysian MP Charles Santiago said the probe had not progressed much.

Mr Sombath's wife talked to police as part of the investigation but Mr Santiago said police asked her about their relationship and other seemingly inconsequential matters such as the date she met Mr Sombath, their wedding date, how many children they had, and her address.

The investigation was conducted by low-ranking officers, he said.

The Lao government should order high-ranking officers to fast-track the probe.

Indonesian MP Lily Wahid said the group would collect the signatures of MPs in Asean countries and forward them to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in Jakarta, to pressure the Lao government to do better.

The delegation members would chase up the investigation to make sure it was making progress, Ms Wahid said.

Related search: sombath, Sombath Somphone, laos, Asean, members of parliament, MPs, slow, disappearance

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Writer: Paritta Wangkiat