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An Activist in Laos Was Gunned Down in Public and Reported Dead. He Actually Survived

A prominent young critic of the Laotian government who reportedly died after being shot by an unidentified gunman last weekend was revealed to have survived—though as of Thursday he remains hospitalized, and his attacker remains at large.

Anousa “Jack” Luangsuphom, 25, was attacked while sitting in a cafe in the Southeast Asian nation’s capital Vientiane on April 29. Local and international media reported that Anousa succumbed to his injuries while en route to the hospital, but photos posted on social media Thursday by staff of the organization Human Rights Watch show him alive and recovering in a hospital.

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Human Rights Watch said that Anousa’s family and “other sources” shared the photographic evidence and verbally confirmed that previous reports of the gunned-down activist’s death were false.

“Very good news!” tweeted Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy director in Asia, who also reiterated Human Rights Watch’s and other human rights advocates’ calls for a thorough and impartial investigation into the shooting as well as greater protection for activists in the country.

What happened?

At 10:39 p.m. on Saturday, April 29, an unidentified gunman wearing a mask shot Anousa twice from point-blank range inside a coffee shop in Vientiane’s Chanthabouly district.

CCTV footage that circulated on social media showed the assailant—who has not yet been identified—donning a brown shirt and black mask and using a face mask to hold the door handle. He peered into the cafe, stepped back to pull out his gun, and then entered to fire two shots at Anousa, before promptly walking away. Footage also showed multiple terrified witnesses in the cafe, including at least two women who attended to Anousa after he fell to the ground.

Anousa reportedly sustained injuries to the face and the chest. While initial reports said he had died, Robertson told TIME that the family had decided to publicly announce his death in order to dissuade the gunman from returning to finish the job. He adds that the family decided to reveal Anousa survived after police became aware he was alive, apparently worried that “if the police know that he is alive and no one else knows, you know something could happen.”

International observers and human rights advocates are worried about the government’s potential role in the incident. Despite state media reporting on the shooting, according to Robertson, police took several days to open an official investigation. According to Human Rights Watch, “Lao authorities have long failed to prevent or adequately respond to attacks against critics of the government, human rights defenders, and political activists.”

Who is Anousa “Jack” Luangsuphom—and what’s the state of activism in Laos?

Anousa is an administrator of the Kub Kluen Duay Keyboard (Driven by Keyboard) Facebook page, which has more than 45,000 followers and is used to express dissent against the Laotian government. He also, according to Amnesty International, ran a Facebook page called Sor Tor Lor – the Republic. “Both pages feature posts on a wide range of social, environmental, economic and political issues in Laos,” says Amnesty International, “such as haze pollution, the human rights of school children and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) rights.”

Laos is an authoritarian, centralized one-party state, and the U.S. State Department alongside other rights bodies have long criticized its human rights issues, particularly the stifling of dissent. Laos is ranked 182nd of the 210 countries and territories on the 2023 edition of Freedom House’s index of political rights and civil liberties.

In recent years, several other critics of the Laos government have either died or disappeared—including, for example, Sombath Somphone, an award-winning campaigner for sustainable development, who has been missing since December 2012 after police pulled his vehicle over at a checkpoint in Vientiane. Od Sayavong, a Laotian pro-democracy activist who had been living in Thailand, has also been missing since 2019.

“We’re skeptical, based on the past track record of the Lao police force, that they’re going to play it straight,” Robertson tells TIME of the ongoing investigation into Anousa’s shooting. “If the Lao government was not behind this,” he says, “then they should do a real investigation, an impartial investigation—and hold accountable both the gunman and whoever sent [him].”