UN human rights experts have expressed serious concerns about the disappearance of a prominent Lao human rights defender, Od Sayavong, who went missing in Thailand just months after meeting a UN special rapporteur.
The passport of Od Sayavong, who disappeared in late August
They urged the Thai Government to clarify the steps taken to locate Od, who had been recognized as a refugee by the UN refugee agency, and to ensure the security of other vulnerable Lao human rights defenders in Bangkok.
Od was last seen at his home in Bangkok on 26 August 2019. On 2 September, a colleague reported his disappearance to the Thai police. Authorities have not provided information as to his whereabouts.
Human rights groups have pointed to a worrying trend in regional cooperation regarding the forced and often unlawful return of refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they face persecution, including from Thailand to neighbouring countries.
Od is a former member of "Free Lao," a group of Lao migrant workers and human rights defenders based in Thailand that advocates for human rights and democracy in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Human rights defenders affiliated with Free Lao in Bangkok say they have been subjected to surveillance and intimidation in recent weeks, especially in relation to the activities they were planning to undertake in parallel to the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok. In 2017, the UN experts expressed concerns that three members of the group were sentenced in Lao PDR to 12 to 20 years imprisonment for taking part in activities critical of the Government while in Thailand.
Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, met with Od and other Lao human rights defenders in Bangkok on 15 March 2019, in advance of his country visit to the Lao PDR. "If an enforced disappearance occurred in part as a reprisal for Od's engagement with the UN system, it would be a violation of his human rights, requiring immediate action. Everyone should have unhindered access to and communication with the UN in the field of human rights." Alston said.
"Od Sayavong is a vocal advocate on human rights, corruption, and environmental issues in the Lao PDR, a country with a track record of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances," said Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. "I hope Thai authorities can swiftly offer information on Od's whereabouts. Until then, we cannot dismiss the possibility that he has been disappeared and is at risk of forcible return to a country where he faces grave threats to his security."
"No one should be targeted simply for expressing political dissent in line with universal human rights law and standards," said David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression. "Od's disappearance is extremely worrying and could have a chilling effect on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression."
UN experts have expressed concerns about similar cases including the enforced disappearance and subsequent forced repatriation from Thailand to Viet Nam of Truong Duy Nhat, Vietnamese blogger and journalist. They have also raised concerns about the disappearance of Thai political activists Surachai Danwattananusorn and Itthipol Sukpan in December 2018 and June 2016 while living in exile in Lao PDR.
Luciano Hazan, Chair of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, added: "The circumstances under which Od has gone missing are alarming, and Thai authorities should investigate this disappearance and take all necessary measures to locate him", while noting that the Government of Lao PDR has yet to take meaningful action to resolve the case of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was disappeared in 2012, despite repeated commitments to do so.
The experts have communicated their concerns to the governments of Thailand and the Lao PDR.