Fifteen years ago this week, I received a phone call in the middle of the night with the news that Somchai Neelapaijit had gone missing. At the time, Somchai was chair of Thailand’s Muslim Lawyers Association and vice-chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Lawyers Council of Thailand.
Official investigations have at least established that Somchai was abducted on March 12, 2004 and later murdered, though his body has never been found. His alleged assailants are a group of police officers who sought retaliation for Somchai’s involvement in lawsuits alleging widespread police torture of Muslim suspects in Thailand’s insurgency-ridden southern border provinces.
But over the past decade and a half, seven prime ministers, including current Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, have failed to bring Somchai’s killers to justice.
A key reason is that Thailand’s penal code does not recognize enforced disappearance as a criminal offense. Without the body, prosecutors could only file charges of robbery and coercion against the five police officers implicated in the case. Their trial, hampered by official cover-ups, ended in their acquittal in December 2015.
Efforts by Somchai’s family to obtain justice have been hampered by a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that the family cannot act as a co-plaintiff, because there is no concrete evidence showing he is dead or otherwise incapable of bringing the case himself. The ruling placed the impossible burden on disappeared people of proving they had been disappeared.
Somchai’s case is the only one ever brought before a Thai court, even though the United Nations has recorded 82 enforced disappearance cases in Thailand since 1980. None have been resolved, and no one has ever been punished.
The Prayut government has repeatedly pledged to ratify the international convention on enforced disappearance, which Thailand signed in 2012.
But as we mark 15 years since Somchai disappeared, that promise has still not been kept.
Even today, Thai authorities are creating conditions conducive to enforced disappearance, such as the use of secret detention by anti-narcotics units and in national security cases.
Thailand’s victims of enforced disappearance and their families deserve better.
Another year should not pass without justice for Somchai and so many others.