Warrants soon in Somchai 'murder' case
OAG drops charges against 58 Tak Bai residents detained for illegal gathering
The Office of the Attorney-General (OAG) announced yesterday that it had dropped charges against the 58 Tak Bai detainees and said arrest warrants could be issued in the suspected murder of prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit.
The announcement was widely expected following the Surayud government's initiatives to open a new chapter with the Malay-Muslim community in the deep South, where the detentions of the 58 Tak Bai demonstrators was seen as unjust given that at least 85 protesters died at the hands of the security forces.
The 58 Muslims were detained on charges of forming an illegal gathering and creating a public disturbance in the Narathiwat district of Tak Bai on October 25, 2004. No government officials have been brought to trial for the deaths of the 85 protesters in the attempt to quell the protest.
Hopes for justice in the case of Somchai, who was abducted in March 2004 and has not been seen since, received a given a new lease of life with the OAG's announcement that a group of people previously linked to his disappearance would now be tried for murder.
"We have received evidence from the Department of Special Investigation [DSI] that suggests that Somchai, who has been officially listed as missing, may have died," said OAG spokesman Atthapol Yaisawang.
"Therefore the suspects will be charged with murder instead of detention of a person without permission as earlier charged," he told reporters.
National Legislative Assembly member Surin Pitsuwan, speaking on the Parliament floor, questioned why the DSI had suddenly come across the so-called new evidence.
"Is this the same DSI that was functioning under the previous government?" the former foreign minister said.
Somchai went missing in Bangkok shortly after accusing authorities of torturing his clients in custody. The clients, all Muslim men, were accused of belonging to the regional extremist group Jemaah Islamiyaah, but were acquitted in June last year.
A police officer was convicted of coercion and sentenced in January to three years in prison for "illegally detaining" Somchai, while four others were cleared of all charges in the case. Atthapol would not say whether any of these five individuals would be now charged with murder.
Regarding the Tak Bai demonstrators, Atthaphol said the evidence against the suspects was weak and it served no purpose to detain them further.
Attorney-General Pachara Yuthithamdamrong said the demonstrators should be released by the Narathiwat Court on Monday, once his office submits the petition.
The decision to drop charges against the suspects came one day after Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont made a public apology to the Malay Muslims for the Tak Bai incident.
Seven people died when police and soldiers opened fire on the demonstration and another 78 died of suffocation after being arrested and being stacked on top of each other for hours in the back of military trucks.
"I have come here to apologise to you on behalf of the previous government and on behalf of this government. What happened in the past was mostly the fault of the state," Surayud said on Thursday in response to a question from the audience about past refusals to apologise.