Today, February 20, 2006 the Board of Directors of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has selected Somchai Neelaphaijit for its 2nd , in recognition of his tireless efforts to bring justice to victims of human rights abuses in Thailand, for which he ultimately sacrificed his life.
Somchai was a world-class human rights lawyer and defender of basic human freedoms. He frequently represented clients accused of threatening state security. He confronted powerful state agents without fear. He was highly successful, and relentless in his efforts to hold government authorities accountable for their actions.
At the time of his abduction on March 12, 2004, Somchai was advocating for a group of torture victims being held under extended detention without charge. He was petitioning senior government officials on their behalf, having failed to secure their release through conventional channels. He had openly accused the police of torture. He was also collecting 50,000 signatures to submit to parliament in order to have martial law lifted in the south of Thailand.
On January 12, 2006, the Criminal Court in Bangkok found that Somchai had been abducted, and sentenced one of the five police defendants to three years in prison for coercion. Under intense pressure, the prime minister of Thailand said that Somchai had been killed and that by the end of February further investigations would lead to murder charges being laid. There has since been little evidence to suggest that this will be done; however, as the case has received persistent public attention it has put an enormous responsibility on the government to explain what happened. Even in death, Somchai continues to be at the centre of demands for accountability and justice.
Somchai has become a symbol of tremendous importance for the movement against forced disappearances not only in Thailand but indeed throughout Asia. The AHRC earnestly believes that both Somchai’s name and what it represents will in time obtain global proportions. It hopes that the giving of this award will be a small step in that direction.
The Asian Human Rights Commission and its sister organisation the Asian Legal Resource Centre have been deeply involved in the case since Somchai was abducted, working with his family and monitoring the entire court proceedings against the five police officers.
Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelaphaijit, has been unrelenting in her efforts to obtain justice, unsparing in her criticism of government authorities, and has taken the lead role as an articulate and courageous spokesperson for the families of disappeared persons in Thailand. She has clearly indicated that she will continue her struggle for her husband no matter what. By giving this award to Somchai, the AHRC Board of Directors is also recognising and applauding the tremendous contribution that Angkhana Neelaphaijit has made in confronting the impunity enjoyed by state officers in Thailand.
The Board of Directors has made its decision to coincide with the AHRC Consultation on the Asian Charter on the Rule of Law, being held in Hong Kong from February 16 to 21, bringing together over thirty lawyers, retired judges and seasoned human rights defenders from across the region. It received the nomination for the award on January 12, 2006, the date of the Criminal Court judgment. The nomination was made jointly by Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, a representative of the Thai Working Group on Human Rights Defenders, and Nick Cheesman, a programme officer of the AHRC.
Angkhana Neelaphaijit has agreed to receive the 2nd in Bangkok on behalf of her husband this March 11, 2006, to mark the second anniversary of his abduction.
Out of respect for this occasion, the Asian Human Rights Commission calls upon the government of Thailand to honour its repeated commitments and at last address the as yet unanswered question, “Where is Somchai?” The authorities must by now understand that this question will not go away. In fact, it will only loom larger as the days, weeks, months and years pass. The perpetrators of this abduction and murder must all be identified, prosecuted and punished, for the sake not only of Somchai, his family and friends, but for all victims of forced disappearance in Thailand–and beyond–for whom justice remains a distant dream.
The Asian Human Rights Commission also takes this opportunity to again call upon the government of Thailand to ratify the U.N. Convention against Torture as well as the new International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and introduce effective domestic laws to criminalise both forced disappearance and torture. A newfound determination by the government of Thailand to end these horrific practices would greatly enhance the country’s international standing, to the benefit of its people.
About Somchai Neelaphaijit
Somchai Neelphaijit was born in Thailand on May 13, 1951. After graduating, he took on many human rights cases, especially those that other lawyers would not. He defended persons accused of national security violations in the south, Burmese exiles, and in one celebrated case, a group of Iranians accused of planning to blow up the embassy of Israel in Bangkok: they were acquitted in 1995. In 2004 he was advocating strongly for the lifting of martial law in the south of Thailand and had publicly accused the police of brutally torturing detainees there.
Somchai served as the deputy chairperson of the Human Rights Subcommittee, Law Society of Thailand, and was a founding member and the chairperson of the Muslim Lawyers Club of Thailand, which offered pro bono services in human rights cases. He also served as an advisor to the Senate Human Rights and Justice Subcommittee. In 2003 he received an award from the Lawyers Society of Thailand in recognition of his services. In June 2005 he was also named for the prestigious Thongbai Thongpao award. He leaves behind his wife Angkhana and their four children.
The Asian Human Rights Commission recognises that human rights and liberties are expanded most by persons willing to make a sacrifice in the defence of these principles. Society is obliged to recognise and honour such sacrifices. For these reasons it has chosen to present awards to human rights defenders at opportune moments. Nominees must be exemplary human rights defenders with whom–or on behalf of whom–the AHRC has worked intensely over some time, and for whom the symbolic act of receiving the award will be significant. Nominations may be submitted to the AHRC executive director by anyone, at any time. The AHRC Board of Directors reserves the exclusive right to accept or reject any nomination.
The inaugural was presented to Michael Anthony Fernando in 2003, in recognition of his struggle for basic freedoms in Sri Lanka. Fernando served a nine-month jail term for contempt of court arising from a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. He was jailed because of his determination to uphold principles of liberty with an uncommon sense of courage, seriousness and self-sacrifice. The second award to Somchai Neelaphaijit follows in this tradition.