Fifteen years after Muslim lawyer Somchai went missing, politicians once again have an opportunity to change the law
With 12 days to go before Thailand finally returns to at least a semblance of civilian rule, politicians are making pledges on how to achieve national progress. Those keen to restore basic human rights withdrawn by the military could begin by reinstating efforts to bring justice in the case of prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, who went missing 15 years ago.
Somchai, who defended the civil rights of suspects accused of involvement in insurgency-related violence in the deep South, disappeared on March 12, 2004.
His disappearance occurred during a crisis in the predominantly Muslim region sparked by the theft of more than 400 military-grade weapons from a
military camp in Narathiwat province.
The raid and theft was a huge embarrassment for the Thai military, which reacted with a security crackdown as it hunted for suspects. The resulting wave of indiscriminate arrests was intolerable to Somchai. He represented a number of suspects in court, defending their constitutional rights in accordance with civilised norms.
A few days before his disappearance, Somchai said that his clients in the weapons-theft case had been tortured to confess at the hands of the Crime Suppression Division.
The lawyer’s disappearance triggered a long court battle, but a picture began to emerge: Somchai was forcibly disappeared by five police officers, some of whom were identified by his clients as the torturers.
However, 11 years of legal struggle brought no justice to Somchai and his family, as the Supreme Court in December 2015 acquitted the five policemen on grounds that the evidence and witnesses were not solid enough.
Thailand, indeed, has not yet criminalised enforced disappearance. As such, prosecutors could only file charges of robbery and coercion against the five police officers implicated in the case.
Somchai’s wife Angkhana has never given up efforts to seek justice for her husband and the family, even lodging a petition with the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) to search for Somchai. Angkhana, a former housewife, took the case to the international community, informing the United Nations among others about the disappearance. They offered their sympathies and admired her struggle but couldn’t do much to help.
In October 2016, Angkhana, who had risen to the post of national human rights commissioner, received notification from the DSI that it had decided to drop the case after almost 12 years of investigation had failed to turn up the culprits.
Yesterday, March 12, marked the 15th anniversary of Somchai’s disappearance. It brought little hope that justice will eventually arrive for the lawyer or the many other rights defenders who have shared his fate.
The UN has recorded no less than 82 forced disappearances in Thailand since the 1980s. Somchai’s case is the only single one that made it to court. Needless to say, none these cases has been solved and no culprits have been caught or punished.
Meanwhile the erosion of civil rights under military rule has created conditions conducive to forced disappearance, since officials acting on “security” concerns are authorised to conduct secretive detentions.
Thailand has made progress on the issue, but there remains huge room for improved justice.
In 2012, Thailand signed the
UN-sponsored international convention for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance. Political parties contesting the coming election should have a clear policy to ratify the convention, with strong commitment to enforce it if they win power.
Thai society and voters should consider the serious nature of this crime, as anybody could be easily “disappeared” merely out of suspicion of being involved in what authorities deem undesirable activities.
The number of recorded instances and the high profile of Somchai’s case clearly show that Thai people are not protected from enforced disappearance. Now is the time to address this problem and propose a proper solution.