(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately reopen the investigation into the enforced disappearance of a prominent ethnic Karen activist who went missing nearly three years ago, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 16, 2017, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) of the Ministry of Justice ended its investigation for Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, known as Billy, who was last seen in government custody at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province in April 2014.
The government remains obligated under international law to provide information on Billy’s fate or whereabouts.
“The Thai authorities’ investigation into Billy’s enforced disappearance has been hampered by cover-up, shoddy investigations, and loopholes in Thai law,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Even though nearly three years have gone by, Thailand’s international legal obligations prohibit the government from walking away from this case. The government needs to say what happened and prosecute those responsible.”
On April 17, 2014, the then-head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, and his staff arrested and detained Billy for alleged illegal possession of a wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey. Park officers later told investigators from Police Region 7 that they released Billy after questioning him briefly and had no information regarding his whereabouts.
In September 2014, Police Region 7 investigation officers filed malfeasance charges under article 157 of the Penal Code against Chaiwat and four other park officers for unlawfully detaining Billy. They found no record of Billy’s release from custody.
Various investigations remain inconclusive and have yet to produce any explanations of what happened to Billy. The Department of Special Investigation collected testimonies from more than 200 witnesses and seized seven Kaeng Krachan Park Office vehicles for examination. Although traces of human blood were found in a vehicle belonging to the park, it was not possible to verify if the blood belonged to Billy because the vehicle was cleaned before forensic experts could examine it. The Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) also took up the case.
Under the 2004 Special Investigation Act, the Department of Special Investigation is empowered to assume jurisdiction over serious criminal cases, including complex cases that require special inquiry; crimes committed by organized criminal groups; and cases where the suspects are influential persons or government officials.
The investigation has been further hindered because Thai law does not recognize enforced disappearances as a crime. A government commits an enforced disappearance when state officials take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts. Enforced disappearances are a “continuing offense”—meaning the crime continues to be committed until the whereabouts or fate of the victim becomes known. The continuing nature of the crime takes a particularly heavy toll, with family members not knowing whether their loved one is alive or dead.
The government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha should ratify theInternational Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Thailand signed in 2012, and amend the Penal Code to make enforced disappearance a criminal offense. On May 24, 2016, the government announced that it would pass a law to criminalize torture and enforced disappearances and ratify the Convention on Enforced Disappearance. These pledges remain unfulfilled.
“Thai authorities should step-up their efforts to uncover the truth of Billy’s case for the sake of his family, to seek justice for this defender of the Karen, and to bring an end to disappearances in Thailand,” Adams said.
At the time of his disappearance, Billy was traveling from his village in the mountains of Kaeng Krachan district to meet with ethnic Karen villagers and activists in preparation for an upcoming court hearing in the lawsuit filed by the villagers against the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and Chaiwat. The villagers alleged in the lawsuit that in July 2011, the authorities were responsible for the destruction and burning of houses and property of more than 20 ethnic Karen families in the Bangkloy Bon village. Billy was also preparing to submit a petition about this case to Thailand’s king. He had been carrying case files and related documents with him.
Despite a long list of allegations against Chaiwat for serious abuses and misconduct while he was in charge of Kaeng Krachan National Park, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha promoted Chaiwat to lead Thailand’s influential “Tiger Corps” forest and wildlife protection unit in May 2016.