(New York) – Thai authorities have failed to effectively prosecute officials linked to the enforced disappearance and presumed murder of a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer last seen 10 years ago, Human Rights Watch said today. Six successive Thai prime ministers have admitted government involvement and pledged action in the case of Somchai Neelapaijit, but with little result.
Five police officers pulled Somchai from his car in Bangkok on March 12, 2004, and he was never seen again. At the time, Somchai was directing a high-profile lawsuit alleging widespread police torture of Muslim suspects in the insurgency-ridden southern border provinces. It is widely presumed that Somchai was murdered, but his body has never been recovered.
“The admissions and promises of six prime ministers have not brought the officials responsible for Somchai’s disappearance and murder to justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This case will hang over the heads of future prime ministers until the perpetrators are held to account.”
The Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) has failed in its responsibility to fully investigate the enforced disappearance.
On January 13, 2006, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra made a crucial admission that government officials were involved in Somchai’s abduction and murder: “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.”
Instead, the DSI has become instrumental in covering up the case. On December 12, 2013, Police Colonel Niran Adulyasak, director of the DSI Bureau of Special Crime 1 who supervises Somchai’s case, told reporters that Somchai’s case files had gone missing after anti-government protesters broke into the DSI headquarters and destroyed one of the file cabinets. However, after criticism from Somchai’s family, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights groups, Colonel Niran subsequently reported to the media that the file had been found in the narrow opening at the back of the filing cabinet in which it was stored. At the same time, he said the DSI would request that the Attorney General Office’s prosecutor of special litigation terminate investigation of Somchai’s case on the grounds that no progress has been made in the investigation for many years.
Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelapaijit, told Human Rights Watch that she now has very little confidence that the DSI would be able to answer very basic questions, such as “Who ordered the abduction and killing?” and “Who has obstructed justice?”
In April 2005, Angkhana submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances alleging that the Thai authorities had failed to produce information on Somchai’s fate or whereabouts. But Thai authorities have provided very little information about the status of Somchai’s case to the working group.
In a March 2007 report titled “It Was Like Suddenly My Son No Longer Existed,” Human Rights Watch documented 22 cases of enforced disappearance, including the case of Somchai, that strongly implicated the Thai police and military. In none of these cases has there been a single successful criminal prosecution. Families of some of these victims received financial assistance from the government of Prime Minister Gen. Surayud Chulanont in 2007 and the Yingluck Shinawatra government in 2011. Offering money and apologies should not be considered a substitute for serious investigations to determine the whereabouts of missing relatives or for appropriate prosecutions of those responsible for the enforced disappearances.
Enforced disappearance is not only a serious human rights violation but also a crime under international law. 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 offense. In a much publicized 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 legislative steps towards ratification.
“The passage of a decade without significant progress in the investigation of Somchai’s disappearance reflects serious problems of impunity for state-sponsored abuses in Thailand,” Adams said. “To demonstrate its commitment to justice and human rights, the Yingluck government needs to stop making promises and instead take action to prosecute Somchai’s murderers.”
Five police officers – Police Maj. Ngern Tongsuk, Police Lt. Col. Sinchai Nimbunkampong, Police Lance Cpl. Chaiweng Paduang, Police Sgt. Rundorn Sithiket, and Police Lt. Col. 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 in Bangkok 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 in investigating the case. Specifically, the telephone records of the five police officers – which showed that they were in contact with one another in the days leading up to the abduction and in the vicinity of the scene of the crime – were not admissible, because they were not original or certified copies of the records. Ngern, who had been free on bail while appealing his case, was reported “missing” in a mudslide on September 19, 2008, while supervising his construction business on the Thai-Burmese border.
On March 11, 2011, the Appeals Court overturned Ngern’s conviction and dismissed the case against all other defendants citing a lack of evidence against them. The court also removed the wife and children of Somchai from being co-plaintiffs in the case, making it impossible for them to represent the family’s interests in any further legal actions. The reason that the court gave for removing them was that under section 5(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code, a co-plaintiff must only be of a deceased person or a person who is unable to act for him or herself. In this case, the court ruled that there was not sufficient proof that Somchai was dead, and therefore his family could not act on his behalf as joint plaintiffs with the public prosecutor.
At present, Somchai’s case is under consideration by Thailand’s Supreme Court.