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(New York) -- The Thai government must urgently investigate the disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit, a prominent human rights lawyer who was last seen five days ago in Bangkok, Human Rights Watch said today. Circumstances surrounding the case, including recent threats, raise concerns for his safety and the possibility he may have been taken into custody by Thai authorities.

Somchai is the chairman of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice-chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Law Society of Thailand. He has taken a high-profile role in defending individuals arrested for alleged participation in recent violence in Thailand’s four southern provinces, which began with an attack on an army camp in Narathiwat on January 4, 2004, and has claimed the lives of at least 50 soldiers, police, Buddhist monks and civilians.

“The environment for lawyers and human rights defenders has taken a dramatic turn for the worse over the past year as the Thai government has become more authoritarian,” said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “It is crucial for the Thai authorities to find out what happened to Somchai as soon as possible and to take steps to stem the deepening climate of fear.”

Somchai had reported to colleagues and family members that he had received threats since taking on the cases of two alleged Thai members of the Jemaah Islamiyah, a violent Islamist group accused of plotting bomb attacks in Thailand, and alleging police torture of some suspects. Colleagues and family members fear he may have been abducted in retaliation for his participation as a defense lawyer in these cases. In addition to the alleged Jemaah Islamiyah members, Somchai was also the lawyer for nine other Thai Muslims from the south accused of being involved in the recent violence.

Somchai’s car was found, apparently abandoned, along the road near the Northeastern Bus Terminal in Bangkok. Human Rights Watch has confirmed with persons close to Somchai that a dent in the trunk of his car was new.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about comments by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and other officials, who have downplayed worries about the safety of Somchai as merely a “family” or “personal” problem. Thaksin reportedly said, “Somchai had disputes with his wife. Perhaps, he just wants to be away from his family problems for a while.”

“Instead of impugning Somchai’s character and hinting that his disappearance is not a serious concern, Prime Minister Thaksin and the Thai police should be working non-stop to find him,” said Adams.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that Somchai may have been taken into custody by Thai authorities, and that he could be at serious risk of torture or other ill treatment. A recent report by the Thai National Human Rights Commission concluded that after recent violence in southern provinces the police have tortured many suspects. The report also found that relatives of suspects were not informed of their whereabouts and lawyers were not permitted to be present during interrogation.

Because Somchai had been receiving threats, he had been systematically informing colleagues and his family about his movements. Somchai was last seen last Friday evening, March 12. He told a co-worker that he was going to see a witness but he did not arrive. He was scheduled to fly to Narathiwat but did not cancel his flight. Colleagues and peers have told Human Rights Watch that Somchai has a good reputation for keeping court appearances and appointments.

“Somchai is a well-respected lawyer who has taken on unpopular clients,” said Adams. Somchai’s disappearance and continued human rights violations in southern Thailand are signs that the rule of law and justice in Thailand are under serious threat.”

Human Rights Watch called for a credible and independent investigation of Somchai’s disappearance and other human rights violations in Thailand.

Chronology of Somchai Neelapaijit’s movements on March 12:

9 am: Somchai left his law firm with his colleague Phathomphong Likit in his car and took the expressway. Shortly afterwards, Somchai’s client called. Somchai said he would reach the meeting place at about 10 a.m. He exited the expressway and headed towards Silom Road where he was unable to find a parking space; he drove to the South Bangkok Civil Court to park his car. He instructed Phathomphong to deliver documents to Samart Maluleem at the Bangkok City Council and then left Phathomphong. He asked Phathomphong to meet him at the Central Bankruptcy Court at 1 p.m.

11:45 am: Phathomphong arrived at the Central Bankruptcy Court for the meeting with Somchai.

1:20 pm: Somchai arrived at the Central Bankruptcy Court.

2 pm: Somchai called a trainee in his office for an update on an assignment. He left the court in a taxi with Phathomphong for the South Bangkok Civil Court to pick up his car. After arriving at the court shortly afterwards, the two left and stopped at a gas station nearby to conduct a routine check on the car. Somchai bought some snacks from the station convenience store.

3:30 pm: The two arrived at the law firm.

6 pm: Somchai and Phathomphong arrived at the Chalina Hotel in the Ramkhamhaeng area near the Hua Mark National Stadium to meet a fellow lawyer, Kitja Ali-isha.

8:30 pm: Somchai decided to leave the hotel after the client did not show up and after he was unable to reach him on the telephone. Somchai told Phathomphong that he was leaving for his brother’s house and that was the last time anybody saw him. Somchai left Phathomphong at the hotel to wait for Kitja, who showed up at 9:30 p.m.

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