More pleas made for safety of missing Lao activist

The wife of a respected social activist in Laos who disappeared and is thought to have been detained by police has broken her silence to plead with the government to aid in his safe return.

Ng Shui Meng, in an appeal to the Lao government circulated to friends and colleagues by e-mail, confirmed that police CCTV footage she was allowed to review showed police stopping and taking into custody her husband, Sombath Somphone, and later putting him into another vehicle with two unidentified men who drove off with him.

Laos has an authoritarian government with little tolerance for dissent, but friends and associates said Sombath's work was neither directly political nor confrontational. Colleagues are unable to offer any possible reason for his disappearance.

Sombath, 60, received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, one of Asia's top civil honors, in 2005. He was director until five months ago of the Participatory Development Training Centre, which he founded in 1996 to promote education and leadership skills. He is also involved in a small enterprise selling village handicrafts.

Colleagues in development work from around the region have written letters of concern to the Lao government over his case.

An official who answered the phone Wednesday at the government's press office in Vientiane said "it's too early to give any information regarding the disappearance because there is not enough evidence to reach a conclusion." The official declined to give his name.

Sombath disappeared Saturday afternoon in the Lao capital, Vientiane, while driving home in his jeep from the development agency he founded.

The account by Sombath's wife, a native of Singapore, said she had been driving another car just ahead of her husband when their vehicles got separated. She said that after he failed to return home, she searched the area and city hospitals later that night and Sunday but to no avail.

On Monday, after reporting him missing and again searching the hospitals, she said she went to the main city police station to look at CCTV footage taken around the time of her husband's disappearance.

"We did see my husband stopped by the police at the Thadeua police post at 6:03 p.m.," Ng wrote. "Then we saw him getting out of the jeep and being taken into the police post. Later we saw a motorcyclist who stopped at the police post and drove off with my husband's jeep leaving his motorcycle by the road side. Later another truck with flashing lights came and stopped at the police post and we saw two people taking my husband into the vehicle and drove off."

After seeing the footage, she wrote appeals to the Ministry of Public Security seeking help in investigating Sombath's disappearance.

"It is now nearly four days since the disappearance of my husband and I have yet to hear anything of his whereabouts," she wrote, appealing to the government "to please investigate my husband's disappearance as soon as possible, release information of his whereabouts and ensure his safety."

The United States has also voiced concern about Sombath's disappearance. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is urging the Lao government to make every effort to locate the activist.

The latest U.S. State Department human rights report, for 2011, described Laos as an authoritarian state under one-party communist rule, and said that arbitrary arrests and detentions persisted in Laos despite laws prohibiting them. It also said "prison conditions were harsh and at times life-threatening, and corruption in the police and judiciary persisted."

Thirty-one fellow Magsaysay awardees and almost a dozen of the award foundation's executives drafted a letter Wednesday to the authorities in Laos "expressing extreme concern about the safety and well-being" of Sombath and calling on the government to urgently investigate his case.

"We know Mr. Sombath as a kind and gentle community worker who loves his country and his people," the letter said.

A separate letter signed by numerous academic and activist individuals and regional and international organizations was also circulated Wednesday calling on the Lao government "to make every effort to ensure his safety." A similar letter was issued Tuesday on behalf of 61 Thai non-governmental organizations and sent to senior officials in Laos and embassies there.

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Associated Press reporters Elisa Mala and Vee Intarakratug in Bangkok, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report