THAILAND: DSI must promptly and assertively answer the question “Where is Somchai?”

December 2, 2005

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

THAILAND: DSI must promptly and assertively answer the question “Where is Somchai?”

December 1 was the last day in the trial hearings at the Bangkok Criminal Court over the alleged abduction and subsequent disappearance of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit by five police officers last 12 March 2004. The judgment is scheduled to be given on January 12. Whatever the outcome on that day, the basic question, “Where is Somchai?” remains unanswered. 

Angkhana Neelaphaijit, the wife of the disappeared lawyer, was not in the court on that last morning. Instead she was meeting with the Justice Minister of Thailand, Police General Chidchai Wanasatidya, to complain about the lack of progress in the continued investigation into her husband’s disappearance by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), which on July 19 was given the task of answering that question. According to Angkhana, she herself has heard nothing from the DSI, and fears that it is not doing its job. 

Many high expectations now rest with the DSI. The department, which is under the Justice Ministry, is the only one in Thailand not under direct control of the police with the authority to investigate and commence prosecutions in criminal cases. It is in effect the de facto agency for investigating serious complaints against the police in Thailand. 

Unfortunately, the DSI does not have such a good record. Take the murder of prominent environmentalist Charoen Wat-aksorn in June 2004. The killer has reportedly said that he killed Charoen due to a personal dispute: the wife of the victim has complained that the DSI has been unable to produce evidence to tie him to the alleged masterminds of the murder. Then there is the death of Phra Supoj Suwajano a year later: the DSI is said to have come up with nothing, despite having been assigned to the case shortly after the monk was slain. And most recently, Ekkawat Srimanta, the victim of heinous genital torture by the police in Ayutthaya, withdrew his civil case, apparently after reaching an agreement with the perpetrators, saying that it was all a “misunderstanding”: it is not known whether or not the DSI is proceeding with its inquiries into that incident. 

In an attempt to encourage greater initiative by the DSI in the case of Somchai Neelaphaijit, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) today wrote to its director-general, Police General Sombat Amornvivat. In its letter, the AHRC requested that the DSI pay special attention to several key issues that have arisen during the trial of the five policemen. The AHRC has had observers present in the court throughout the trial, and has based its comments to the DSI on what these persons have seen and heard. 

And from what they saw and heard, the metropolitan police investigation was bungled from the start. Investigators failed to collect and properly analyze all available evidence that could answer questions about the abduction, did not follow correct procedures and allegedly coerced and intimidated witnesses into giving testimonies. As a result, the following questions are still unanswered, despite weeks of testimony before the court. 

1. What car was used to abduct Somchai? 
Eyewitness statements vary. No attempt appears to have been made by the police to cut through the confusion and positively identify the vehicle. As a result, a key piece of evidence has been neglected. 

2. Did the police investigators follow procedure? 
There seem to have been many irregularities in the collecting and recording of eyewitness testimonies. Eyewitnesses were not taken to the crime scene to go over their statements, apparently because they were too afraid. As a result, different facts came out in the court, and eyewitnesses were easily confused. Two eyewitnesses said they signed documents without reading them. They also complained that they were not told that they would have to testify in court and had come against their will. Some police investigators said that that they were given only oral orders to conduct investigations, which explained why their names were not on investigation records. The defence attorneys alleged that the police investigators did not follow proper arrest procedures. One defendant accused them of forging documents, although his accusation was not substantiated. 

3. Do the defendants really have alibis? 
Media reports of the trial suggested that they do, but observers in the court felt that the appearance of alibis was due mainly to the failure of the police to properly investigate the defendants’ stories. Much more could have been done to search for all details of the defendants’ whereabouts on and after March 12 and determine if they were telling the truth or not. 

4. Where was the forensic science? 
Only Police Major General Chuan Vorawanich, commander of the Scientific Crime Detection Division, testified on the findings of forensic tests. A few hairs and fingerprints, which didn’t reveal anything, were all they found he said. However, hairs were unidentified, evidence could have been removed, and questions remain over having police forensic scientists investigate a crime alleged to have been committed by other police. The Central Institute of Forensic Science under the Justice Ministry also investigated the scene and the victim’s car, but no one from that agency appeared in court. 

5. What about the phone records?
The strongest prosecution evidence produced was the mobile phone records of the five defendants. The court heard how investigators were able to obtain the lists of phone calls that had been made and establish that in the hours before Somchai was abducted the defendants called one another 75 times from areas close to where the crime occurred. By contrast, they rarely called one another in the days before and after. When Somchai’s car was found on March 16, the number of calls suddenly increased to more than 30. The court heard telephone company representatives explain that these records are 99 per cent accurate. However, the five defendants produced convoluted and confusing explanations as to why the records were wrong: they were forged; the phone was with another person; the phone was on the desk and anyone could use it; the phone was switched off, etc. 

All the talk about phone calls left observers with many more questions than answers. What about the duration of the calls? (For how long would it be possible, for instance, for someone to use a phone left on another person’s desk? Five minutes? Fifteen minutes? An hour or more?) Why were there many gaps in the phone call records reported in the court? Why was the phone record of the fifth defendant, who many observers view as the ringleader of the alleged five perpetrators, not produced in the court? Why weren’t all calls in and out of the defendants phones analysed and reported on? It seems that there is still a mine of information in the mobile phone records that could be dug up and used by more canny investigators. 
6. Were the eyewitnesses threatened? Were investigators threatened?
The eyewitnesses all reversed or undermined their pre-trial statements during their testimonies in court. Why? Three said that they could not identify any of the defendants. One said that he couldn’t identify them, that he never could, and that he had been pressured by the police investigators to say that he could. He said that he was afraid of them and so he did what they said, although he admitted to the court that he was also afraid of the defendants because they too are police.

Two police officers involved in the case also told the court that they had been threatened and intimidated by other officers during the investigation. One began telling his ordeal to the court, but was instructed to submit a written complaint instead. 

7. Who ordered the abduction?
It is widely agreed that the alleged perpetrators weren’t the ones to come up with the idea of abducting Somchai Neelaphaijit. Someone else did that; they took the order. So who was it? Has any attempt been made to follow the chain of command? Why weren’t senior officers called to the court who could answer such questions? Have there been any interrogations of senior government figures who reportedly said that they “heard” things about the abduction. Somchai’s wife has herself stated that the prime minister told her that her husband was taken to Ratchaburi Province. How did he know? Has there been any attempt to subpoena him, or the Interior Minister of the time, or anyone else who may have some sources or information that could answer these questions? 

These are just a few of the questions arising out of the hearings into the abduction of Somchai Neelaphaijit. They are of course not only questions for the DSI, but questions for all institutions and concerned persons in Thailand, because they speak to deep problems in the policing, prosecuting and trying of suspects there. Somchai’s story is the story of every victim of disappearance, extrajudicial killing or torture in Thailand. It is the story of every court case gone wrong; messed up due to poor police work, disinterested legal work and the absence of channels for complaints and means to obtain redress. 

The role of the DSI in this case, and in all serious cases of human rights abuse that come to its attention, is captured in the closing recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee to the Government of Thailand in July 2005 that it “should conduct full and impartial investigations into [all] such other events and should, depending on the findings of the investigations, institute proceedings against the perpetrators… [and] also ensure that victims and their families, including the relatives of missing and disappeared persons, receive adequate redress…” [CCRP.CO.84.THA, 28 July 2005, Paragraph 10]

So the Department of Special Investigation has some work to do. Almost two years have passed since 12 March 2004, and yet we are still forced to ask, “Where is Somchai Neelaphaijit?” This is intolerable and unacceptable. The Asian Human Rights Commission today again calls for widespread public support for Angkhana Neelaphaijit in her demands that the DSI at last accept responsibility for promptly and assertively bringing the perpetrators to justice for their crimes: for the sake not only of her family and husband, but for all victims of police abduction, torture and murder in Thailand.  

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-123-2005
Countries : Thailand,
Campaigns : Somchai Neelaphaijit
Issues : Administration of justice, Enforced disappearances and abductions,