(New York) - Two years later and despite repeated pledges, Thai authorities have failed to bring to justice the police officials responsible for the enforced disappearance and presumed murder of a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 12, 2004, five policemen in Bangkok allegedly abducted Somchai Neelpaijit, who was chairman of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice-chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Law Society of Thailand. Somchai had taken a high-profile role in defending individuals arrested for alleged participation in violence in Thailand’s four southern, predominantly Muslim border provinces.
On January 12, the Central Criminal Court in Bangkok 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. In his concluding remarks, the judge criticized deficiencies in police investigation and legal work.
“The investigation failed to explain what happened to Somchai after the assault and who was responsible,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s clear that there has been a cover-up by senior police officials that must be independently investigated.”
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,” the Thai prime minister said. “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 by the end of February.”
Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelapaijit, told Human Rights Watch that Prime Minister Thaksin had informed her that her husband was taken to Ratchaburi province. It is unclear how Thaksin learned of this information, but neither he nor senior police officials were subpoenaed by the Department of Special Investigations to explain it. This department is the only agency in Thailand not under the direct control of the police with the authority to investigate and commence prosecutions in criminal cases. Angkhana said she now has very little confidence that the Department of Special Investigations would be able to answer very basic questions, such as “who ordered the abduction and killing?” and “who obstructed justice?”
“The prime minister’s crucial admission that government officials were involved in Somchai’s murder has led to no visible progress in the investigation,” said Adams. “It appears that the authorities have instead focused their energies on deflecting criticism and concealing the truth.”
Despite many reported “disappearances” related to the Thai government’s counterinsurgency operations in its southern, largely Muslim border provinces, Somchai’s case is the only case that has led to a prosecution or has received significant public attention, Human Rights Watch said.
Many in Thailand’s Muslim community have complained that the failure to solve Somchai’s case or other cases of “disappearances” has left them with the perception that justice for them is likewise disappearing. Resentment against human rights abuses by authorities in the south is among the factors fueling an increasingly brutal insurgency, in which militants have carried out a string of bombings, the beheading of Buddhist monks, attacks on teachers and civil servants, and arson of schools over the past two years.
“Somchai’s ‘disappearance’ is a symbol of how justice has disappeared during Thaksin’s tenure,” said Adams. “It’s time for government forces and militants to end their terrible abuses.”
On April 15, Angkhana submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, expressing disappointment that Thai authorities had failed to solve the case. Human Rights Watch urged Thai authorities immediately to launch competent, independent and impartial investigations into allegations of “disappearances” and other alleged abuses by government officials. Human Rights Watch also strongly urged Thai authorities to take all necessary steps to stop the practice of enforced “disappearances,” including by making enforced disappearance a criminal offense and to support the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance when it is up for adoption by the U.N. General Assembly.
Throughout Thailand, and particularly in the southern border provinces, the government must hold all persons detained by law enforcement and security forces at recognized places of detention, and they must not be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The authorities must make their whereabouts known to family and legal counsel.