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Sombath Somphone, a civil society leader from Laos, with Desmond Tutu in 2006
Sombath Somphone, a civil society leader from Laos, with Desmond Tutu in 2006. Sombath Somphone was last seen on the December 15, 2012. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Writer’s priorities not right

Dear Editor,

In his recent column for the Post, Roger Mitton described the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone as a “piffling affair” compared to the extraordinary renditions to Guantanamo Bay detention camp ("People in glass houses", December 9, 2013).

Mr Mitton’s condemnation of Guantanamo is welcome. In a previous job, I was part of a team that undertook legal work for a group of individuals there – their situation was dreadful.

Amnesty International has tirelessly campaigned against the torture, renditions and the indefinite detention of people without charge or trial at Guantanamo and elsewhere, and has called for the camp to be closed.

But it is disappointing that Mr Mitton doesn’t show a little more sympathy for Sombath Somphone and his family. Nobody knows where Sombath, aged 62, is or even if he’s alive.

His family hopes every day for news: a sign that their husband, son and uncle might be returned to them.

An advocate for sustainable development, Sombath was abducted in the presence of security personnel at a police post in the Lao capital Vientiane on December 15, 2012. His case is examined in detail in Amnesty International’s report – Caught on Camera: The Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone.

Inconceivably, Mr Mitton describes the Lao Deputy Prime Minister (and Foreign Minister) Thongloun Sisoulith as getting “his priorities right”, and even suggests a “silver lining” to Sombath’s abduction in highlighting other governments’ “greater” human rights violations.

But there is no silver lining to the cruelty that an enforced disappearance inflicts on its direct victims and their families.

As the Post’s “regional insider”, Mr Mitton pens some illuminating articles. But this time he has misread the feeling in the region: “[t]hankfully, here in Southeast Asia, Sombath’s abduction is something of a big yawn …” This is callous.

Actually, numerous individuals and groups across the region have joined Sombath’s family and friends in campaigning to “Find Sombath!”

Parliamentarians from other ASEAN countries have visited Laos to demand answers. His case has been highlighted at events held throughout Asia, including Thailand, the Philippines and Japan.

And the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights has come under pressure to take action.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance on December 15, Amnesty International is joining others in the region and across the globe in calling for the Lao government to get its “priorities right” and return him to his family.

Rupert Abbott
Researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam
Amnesty International

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