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(New York) – The Thai government should reopen the investigation of the enforced disappearance and presumed murder of a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer, Human Rights Watch said today. The lawyer, Somchai Neelapaijit, was abducted in Bangkok 12 years ago. The government should make publicly available its information on Somchai’s fate and demonstrate its commitment to bringing those responsible for this heinous crime to justice.

A sketch of Somchai Neelapaijit, a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer abducted in Bangkok on March 12, 2004.  © 2015 Private

“The Thai authorities’ failure to treat Somchai’s ‘disappearance’ as a likely abduction and murder undermines their credibility,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Because Thailand doesn’t recognize enforced disappearance as a crime, the authorities have avoided inquiring too closely into those who actually ordered Somchai’s abduction and know what happened to him.”

Somchai had been the chairman of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice-chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Law Society of Thailand. On March 12, 2004, five alleged policemen pulled him from his car in Bangkok. He has not been seen since.

On January 13, 2006, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that government officials were involved in Somchai’s abduction and killing: “The DSI [Ministry of Justice’s 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.” Yet since Thailand’s penal code does not recognize enforced disappearance as a criminal offense, prosecutors filed only assault, coercion, and robbery charges against the five police officers implicated in Somchai’s abduction. They were not charged with murder because the authorities said they could find no evidence of Somchai’s death. His body has never been recovered.

On December 29, 2015, the Supreme Court acquitted the officers, largely due 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 Somchai was dead or otherwise incapable of bringing the case himself.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged successive Thai governments – most recently in a January 14, 2016 letter to the current prime minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha – to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and to amend its penal code to make enforced disappearance a criminal offense. Thailand signed the Convention in January 2012, but since then has made little progress in ratifying the treaty.

Somchai’s case will hang over General Prayut’s government until his fate is explained and those responsible are punished.
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. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under international law, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution.

Since 1980, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand. None of these cases have been successfully resolved. Human Rights Watch and human rights groups working in Thailand believe that the actual number of such cases in Thailand is higher due to some families of victims and witnesses remaining silent for fear of reprisal and because the government lacks an effective witness protection system.

The Thai authorities should take all necessary steps to stop the practice of enforced disappearances. Of particular concern is the military’s use of secret detention facilities for dissenters and suspects in national security cases under section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution and the Martial Law Act of 1914.

On January 24, 2016, witnesses saw three men drag Fadel Sohmarn, 28, into their car and drive away after he left his home in Pattani province. Thai authorities had suspected Fadel of involvement in the southern insurgency. His fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

“Somchai’s case will hang over General Prayut’s government until his fate is explained and those responsible are punished,” Adams said. “Swift action is needed to stop future disappearances as each new case provides glaring proof of Thailand’s human rights crisis.”

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