Rights group calls for release of activist missing in Laos

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

groups say.

"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

director.

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

ministry said.

"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)

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