(New York) – The Thai government should immediately act to end enforced disappearances in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha. The government should make enforced disappearance a criminal offense and take serious steps to bring those responsible for this human rights violation to justice.

On December 29, 2015, the Supreme Court acquitted five police officers charged in the March 2004 disappearance of a prominent human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelapaijit, despite the admission by then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that the police were responsible and substantial evidence implicating specific police officials.

“The dozens of unresolved disappearance cases in Thailand demand an immediate government response to investigate and bring those responsible to justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thai authorities should end the excuses and cover ups that have allowed impunity to flourish and have condemned families of the missing to years of agony and uncertainty.”

Prayut should fulfill pledges he made at the United Nations General Assembly to protect human rights and for the government to urgently ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

The dozens of unresolved disappearance cases in Thailand demand an immediate government response to investigate and bring those responsible to justice. Thai authorities should end the excuses and cover ups that have allowed impunity to flourish and have condemned families of the missing to years of agony and uncertainty.

Brad Adams

Asia director

Enforced disappearance is defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

Since 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand. Somchai’s case is the only enforced disappearance case that has been brought to court. The actual number of cases in Thailand is underreported because some families of victims and witnesses keep silent due to fears of reprisal and the government’s lack of an effective witness protection system.

Because Thailand’s penal code does not recognize enforced disappearance as a criminal offense, a major shortcoming that goes against international rights standards, prosecutors only filed robbery and coercion charges against the five officers in Somchai’s case. Over the 11 years since his disappearance, Thai authorities have failed to explain his fate or whereabouts. The acquittal was due in part to shoddy police work in investigating the crime and collecting evidence. The court also ruled that Somchai’s family could not act as a co-plaintiff because there was no concrete evidence that he was dead or incapable of bringing the case by himself.

“This verdict sets a bad precedent that places the burden of proving enforced disappearance on the disappeared person himself – which is impossible,” Adams said. “The current system entrenches impunity for government officials involved in disappearances.”

The previous government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra signed the enforced disappearance convention in January 2012, but since then Thailand has not ratified the treaty or changed the penal code to make enforced disappearance a criminal offense.

Human Rights Watch also raised concerns about the use of secret military detention by Thai authorities both under section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution against dissenters and suspects in national security cases and under the 1914 Martial Law Act against insurgent suspects in the southern border provinces.

“The Thai government should make a 180 degree turn in its policy by recognizing that secret detention and enforced disappearance fundamentally undermine the rule of law and destroy people’s trust in their government,” Adams said. “The failure to pursue and end enforced disappearance cases runs counter to General Prayut’s many pledges to respect human rights.”