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Thailand: End Official Cover-Up in Lawyer’s ‘Disappearance’

Four Years On, Continued Impunity Fuels Cycle of Abuse and More ‘Disappearances’

(New York) - On the fourth anniversary of the enforced disappearance and presumed murder of prominent Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelappaijit, the new Thai government should ensure that the police officers responsible for this crime are finally brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

On March 12, 2004, Somchai was pulled from his car in Bangkok, allegedly by five policemen, and never seen again. He was chairman of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice-chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Lawyers Council of Thailand. At the time, Somchai was involved in a lawsuit alleging widespread police torture of Muslims in the conflict-ridden southern border provinces.

Over the past four years, two prime ministers – Thaksin Shinawatra and General Surayud Chulanont – acknowledged that government officials were involved in Somchai’s abduction and killing. But neither pressed the Royal Thai Police and the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation to answer basic questions such as who ordered the abduction and killing of Somchai and who obstructed justice.

“Somchai’s case is a clear test for the new Thai government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Successive governments have engaged in a cover-up to hide the identities of the authors of this heinous crime. Four years later, no steps have been taken to hold these officials accountable.”

Since taking office in January, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and other cabinet ministers have been completely silent on Somchai’s case, and have failed to address other pressing human rights concerns, including numerous other “disappearances” by security forces in the southern border provinces.

Five police officers – Police Major Ngern Tongsuk, Police Lieutenant Colonel Sinchai Nimbunkampong, Police Lance Corporal Chaiweng Paduang, Police Sergeant Rundorn Sithiket, and Police Lieutenant Colonel Chadchai Leiamsa-ngoun – were arrested in April 2004 in connection with Somchai’s case and charged with coercion and robbery. None have been charged with the more serious crimes of abduction or other offenses connected to the enforced disappearance.

On January 12, 2006 the Central Criminal Court found Police Major Ngern guilty of physically assaulting Somchai and sentenced him to three years of imprisonment. The other four accused police officers were acquitted due to insufficient evidence. The judge concluded that the assault led to Somchai’s “disappearance” and criticized the efforts of the police to bring justice to this case. Human Rights Watch and Thai organizations criticized the lack of a serious prosecution effort and the failure of the Thaksin government to pursue the sponsors of the abduction.

In March 2007, Human Rights Watch published a 69-page report, “It Was Like Suddenly My Son No Longer Existed: Enforced Disappearances in Thailand’s Southern Border Provinces,” providing details of 22 cases of unresolved “disappearances” in which the evidence strongly indicated that personnel of the Royal Thai Police and the Royal Thai Army were responsible. The government has taken no action in any of these cases. Despite many reported enforced disappearances related to the Thai government’s counterinsurgency operations in the southern border provinces, Somchai’s case is the only one that has led to a prosecution or has received significant public attention.

“The prominence of Somchai’s case has made it difficult for Thai governments to ignore the ongoing problem of ‘disappearances,’” said Adams. “But in many similar cases, the government has done nothing in response except shield the killers from justice.”

Human Rights Watch said that the Thai government has enforced laws and regulations in such a way that as to increase the vulnerability of suspects in the southern border provinces, leaving them vulnerable to torture, “disappearance,” and extrajudicial killing during pre-charge detention. The Martial Law Act of 1914 allows seven days of pre-charge detention. After that, suspects can be detained for another 30 days under the 2005 Emergency Decree on Government Administration in Emergency Situations put in place by Thaksin. (See Human Rights Watch analysis of the Emergency Decree in a letter to the Thai government dated August 4, 2005: Suspects are also prohibited from having access to family and lawyer visits during the first 72 hours of their detention.

Resentment against human rights abuses by Thai authorities is among the factors fueling an increasingly brutal insurgency in which separatist militants have carried out a string of deadly attacks – shooting, bombing, hacking, and arson attacks – over the past four years. Since January 2004, this violence has claimed more than 2,900 lives, and about 95 percent of the victims have been civilians.

Human Rights Watch strongly urged Prime Minister Samak and the Thai authorities to take all necessary steps to stop the practice of enforced disappearances, including by making enforced disappearance a specific 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. Authorities must immediately make the whereabouts of detainees known to family and lawyers.

“Muslims in southern Thailand have told us that the government’s failure to solve ‘disappearances’ leaves them with the perception that justice for them is disappearing as well,” said Adams.

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