The Thai government needs to account for missing documents in the case of the enforced disappearance and presumed murder of a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer nearly a decade ago. On March 12, 2004, Somchai Neelapaijit was pulled from his car in Bangkok, allegedly by five police officers, and never seen again. No body was ever recovered.
On Thursday, the Justice Ministry's Department of Special Investigation (DSI) told reporters that Somchai's case files went missing after anti-government protesters broke into DSI headquarters and destroyed one of the file cabinets. No other cases stored in the same maximum security zone were damaged or stolen, the department said. Somchai's family told Human Rights Watch they feared that the DSI would use this as an excuse to stop the investigation, an outcome the family said officials told them was likely.
Leaders of the protest told Human Rights Watch that none of their supporters had entered the file storage room and stolen Somchai's case files. They said they believed the files implicated police officers linked to their opponent, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Successive Thai governments have engaged in cover-ups to hide the identities of those responsible for Somchai's abduction and feared murder.
Suddenly the government is claiming that the files were stolen, a convenient excuse for the authorities to close Somchai's case and let those responsible off the hook for justice.
At the time of his enforced disappearance, Somchai was involved in a lawsuit alleging widespread police torture of Muslim suspects in the insurgency-ridden southern border provinces.
On January 13, 2006, then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that government officials were involved in Somchai's abduction and killing: "The DSI 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." He said that collecting evidence and witnesses was "not easy because this case involves government officials".
Over the past nearly 10 years, six premiers - including the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister - have failed to press the DSI to investigate the case in anticipation of criminal prosecutions of those responsible. In April 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 had failed to produce information on Somchai's fate or whereabouts.
In a March 2007 report, "It Was Like Suddenly My Son No Longer Existed", Human Rights Watch documented 22 cases of enforced disappearance that strongly implicated the Thai police and military. In none of these cases has there been a successful criminal prosecution of the perpetrators.
Human Rights Watch urged Thai authorities to take all necessary steps to stop the practice of enforced disappearances, including by making enforced disappearance a criminal offence.
In a much-publicised attempt to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and the rule of law, the Yingluck government on January 9, 2012, signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, but has yet to take steps towards ratification. The Thai penal code still does not recognise enforced disappearance as a criminal offence.
Somchai's 'disappearance' reflects glaring problems of state-sponsored abuses and the culture of impunity in Thailand. Prime Minister Yingluck needs to demonstrate political courage by pressing the Justice Ministry to at last bring the perpetrators to justice.
Brad Adams is director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.