BANGKOK, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Laos should release a prominent
rights activist who went missing this month, an international
human rights group said on Thursday, although authorities there
have said they do not know where he is or who was responsible
for his disappearance.
Sombath Somphone, 60, disappeared on Dec. 15 in the Lao
capital, Vientiane, after being stopped by police while driving
his jeep from the development agency he founded, human rights
"Circumstances surrounding the case including security
camera footage, indicate Lao authorities took him into custody,
raising concerns for his safety," New York-based Human Rights
Watch said in a statement.
"The Lao government needs to immediately reveal Sombath's
location and release him," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia
The United States has also voiced concern about the
disappearance of Sombath, who received the Ramon Magsaysay Award
for community leadership in 2005 and worked to promote education
and development in poverty-stricken Laos. The award is often
described as Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
The landlocked Communist country has little tolerance for
dissent and this month expelled the director of a Swiss
development organisation for criticizing the country's one-party
regime in a letter to donors.
In a rare statement posted by official media on Wednesday,
the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs said traffic police had
stopped Sombath on Dec. 15 in the course of routine checks but
unknown men had taken him away shortly after that.
"It may be possible Mr Sombath has been kidnapped perhaps
because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business," the
"The authorities are not in a position to say exactly what
has actually happened, why Mr Sombath has gone missing and who
have been involved in the incident."
Authorities were "seriously investigating", it said.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions persist in Laos despite
laws prohibiting them, the U.S. State Department said in its
2011 human rights report, and police and security force members
sometimes abused prisoners.
"The Lao authorities should recognise that Sombath's years
of development work have earned him important friends around the
world, and that the clamour for his release is not going to go
away," Adams said.
(Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel)