Thailand: Renewed call for justice on the twelfth anniversary of the disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit

Asia Human Rights
March 11, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Asian Human Rights Commission

March 12, 2016 is the twelfth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaijit. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) marks this date by bringing attention to the ongoing failure of the Thai judicial system to establish the truth behind his disappearance and to call for justice in his case and that of other disappeared human rights defenders.

Somchai Neelaphaijit was a noted lawyer and human rights defender. At the time of his enforced disappearance, Somchai was working on behalf of five men who had alleged that they were tortured by state security officials while they were in state custody in Narathiwat, one of the three southern-most Thai provinces, which has been under martial law since January 2004 and under emergency regulations since July 2005. On March 11, 2004, the day before his enforced disappearance, Somchai submitted a complaint to the court which detailed the forms of torture experienced by the five men. He argued that this was both a violation of their rights and the Criminal Code, which prohibits torture. He also spoke out publicly and passionately on the case, accusing the police of gross wrongdoing. On March 12, 2004, one day after he submitted the complaint, five policeman pulled Somchai from his car on a main road in Bangkok. He was never seen again.

In April 2004, five police officers (Police Major Ngern Thongsuk, Police Lieutenant Colonel Sinchai Nimbunkampong, Police Lance Corporal Chaiweng Paduang, Police Sargeant Rundorn Sithiket, and Police Lieutenant Colonel Chadchai Leiamsa-ngoun) were arrested in connection with Somchai's disappearance and charged with assault, coercion and robbery. The lack of a body meant that they could not be charged with murder and there is no category of enforced disappearance within the Thai Criminal Code. The court proceedings in the case suffered from significant problems, including poor use of forensic evidence, failure to follow and develop leads, unduly restrictive interpretation of national and international law, and above all, a lack of political will to resolve the case. In sum, the adjudication of the case reflected the culture of impunity in Thailand. The AHRC compiled a trial observation report that can be read here.

On January 12, 2006, the Court of First Instance ruled that of the five police officers, Police Major Ngern Thongsukwas guilty of assault and coercion ( AS-005-2006 , AHRC-STM-020-2011 , AS-013-2006 ). He was sentenced to three years imprisonment. The charges against the other four police officers were dismissed. Both the prosecution and the defence appealed the verdict and Police Major Ngern Thongsuk was granted bail for the duration of the appeal.

On March 11, 2011, the Appeal Court acquitted all five police officers ( AHRC-UAU-017-2011 , AHRC-OLT-004-2011 ). The Court also ruled that Angkhana, Somchai's wife, and their five children could not be co-plaintiffs in the case as there was not conclusive evidence that Somchai was dead. On May 9, 2011, the Neelapaijit family submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court on both the matter of the acquittal and their status as co-plaintiffs. On December 29, 2015, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Appeal Court.

Twelve years after the disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit, his case remains unresolved and justice remains deferred. In addition, Somchaiis not the only human rights defender who has been subject to enforced disappearance in Thailand. During the period of 1998 to 2014, more than thirty-three human rights defenders have been extrajudicially killed or forcibly disappeared. Ethnic Karen environmental activist Porjalee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen disappeared in April 2014 ( ALRC-CWS-26-13-2014 ).

The AHRC recognizes that enforced disappearance is not only a serious human rights violation but also a crime under international law. In January 2012, Thailand signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, but has not yet ratified it. Pending the ratification, Thailand must desist from any acts that would defeat the objective and purpose of the Convention, which places an obligation on state parties to make enforced disappearance a criminal offence and to treat family members of disappeared persons as victims in their own right.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, Somchai's widow, noted human rights defender, founder of the Justice for Peace Foundation, and a member of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, has commented that, "The justice system cannot return life to Somchai, but the justice system cannot deny the right to bring justice for him."

The AHRC echoes Angkhana Neelaphaijit's comment and marks the twelfth anniversary of the disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit by calling on the Thai government to take responsibility for Somchai's disappearance and other enforced disappearance cases in a manner that conforms to its international obligations. The AHRC also calls on the Thai government to immediately ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and to enact domestic legislation that makes enforced disappearance a specific crime in Thai domestic law.