(New York) - In spite of the January 12 conviction of a Thai police officer for assaulting missing Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, further investigations and prosecutions are urgently needed, Human Rights Watch said today.
Somchai—chairman of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice-chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Law Society of Thailand—was pulled from his car in Bangkok on March 12, 2004, allegedly by five policemen, and never seen again. At the time Somchai was involved in a lawsuit alleging widespread police torture of Muslims in the south of the country, where a budding insurgency was taking place.
Five police officers were arrested and charged with assault. On January 12 Judge Suwit Pornpanich of the Central Criminal Court found Police Major Ngern Tongsuk guilty of physically assaulting Somchai and sentenced him to three years imprisonment. The other four accused police officers were acquitted due to insufficient evidence. The judge concluded that the assault led to his disappearance. He criticized the efforts of the prosecution and police in the case.
“It is absurd that a police officer has now been convicted of assault in a case in which the victim has disappeared and is presumed dead, but no one has been charged with a more serious offence,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s past time for a serious and independent murder investigation. Given their involvement, the police cannot be trusted to find those who ordered and carried out this heinous crime.”
On January 13, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra publicly stated for the first time that government officials were involved in Somchai’s abduction and killing: “The Department of Special Investigation is working on this case and murder charges are being considered. I know Somchai is dead, circumstantial evidence indicated that... and there were more than four government officials implicated by the investigation. Witnesses and evidence are still being collected, but that is not easy because this case involves government officials. I think the Department of Special Investigation will conclude the investigation in February.”
“Prime Minister Thaksin’s acknowledgement that government officials have been implicated in Somchai’s death is welcome,” said Adams. “But this has been obvious almost since the day Somchai went missing. The Prime Minister now needs to make sure some basic questions are answered, such as ‘who ordered the killing?’ ‘who obstructed justice?’ and ‘what happened to Somchai?’”
Before his death, Somchai told his colleagues and family members that he had received threats since alleging police torture of suspects arrested for alleged participation in the attack on an army camp in Narathiwat on January 4, 2004. That attack started a new spate of violence which has now engulfed Thailand’s southern border provinces.
On April 15, 2005, Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelapaijit, submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressing disappointment that Thai authorities have failed to solve the case.
Human Rights Watch said that it is deeply concerned about the safety of Somchai’s family and those working to find the truth in this case. Somchai’s wife and lawyers representing her family told Human Rights Watch that they have been followed and threatened for many months. When Angkhana left the Central Criminal Court after Thursday’s verdict, she found her lawyer’s car, which had transported her to court, had been vandalized. Thai human rights defenders, involved in the trial observation, also reported that they received threatening phone calls while carrying out their work.
“Prime Minister Thaksin should publicly order an investigation into threats and intimidation of Somchai’s family and supporters,” said Adams. “Their safety is the responsibility of the authorities.”
Human Rights Watch noted that despite many reported “disappearances” related to the Thai government’s counter-insurgency operations in the southern border provinces, Somchai’s case is the only instance that has led to a prosecution or has received significant public attention in Thailand and abroad. In the three southern border provinces, enforced disappearances of Muslims suspected of participating in the insurgency began a few days after Prime Minister Thaksin pressured police and soldiers to quickly arrest those responsible for the attack on the army camp in Narathiwat on January 4, 2004.
“As political pressure has been put on security forces to defeat the insurgents, the number of ‘disappearances’ and extrajudicial killings has spiked,” said Adams. “The government has to address Somchai’s case and other abuses in the south if it is to succeed in gaining public trust.”
Human Rights Watch urged the creation of an independent agency to properly investigate allegations of crimes committed by government officials. Human Rights Watch also strongly urged Prime Minister Thaksin and the Thai authorities to take all necessary steps to stop the practice of enforced disappearances, including by making enforced disappearance a criminal offense. In addition, Thai authorities must ensure that all persons detained by the law enforcement and security forces are held at recognized places of detention, and are not subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Their whereabouts must be made known to family and legal counsel.