THAILAND: Disappearance of a human rights defender and disappearance of justice in Thailand

The authorities in Thailand have abandoned any pretence that they are trying to resolve the disappearance of well-known human rights defender and lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit. After initially reacting to domestic and international outcry (see AHRC statement AS-07-2004, 18 March 2004), they seem now to be concerned only with deflecting criticism, obscuring the truth and discouraging those trying to get to the bottom of the case. The five police officers fingered as culprits–none of whom knew the others prior to making off with Mr Somchai–have been charged only with collusion to coerce and assault a person, and armed robbery. They have since been released on bail. These police are known to have forcibly stopped Mr Somchai’s car and removed him from it. They are to date the last persons known to have seen him prior to his disappearance. However, the wife of Mr Somchai is reported to have remarked that, “I strongly doubt whether prosecutors can win a conviction.” The court case is due to start on June 21.

There is an unequivocal link between Mr Somchai’s disappearance and state officers. Assuming that he is by now dead, the responsibility for his death lies with the government of Thailand. The government, however, has so far failed to fulfil its obligations in this regard. Assertions that it is unable to discharge these obligations must be seen as amounting to failure to protect a citizen, for which higher officers and government officials must be held to account. If these persons do not explain fully the circumstances of Mr Somchai’s disappearance and the apparent role of state officers in the case, they should be called upon to resign, for breaching or neglecting their public duties in a case of utmost importance to the nation.

Forced disappearance is a heinous crime, condemned by all civilised societies. The draft International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Forced Disappearance of 1998 defines forced disappearance as “the deprivation of a person’s liberty, in whatever form or for whatever reason, brought about by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by an absence of information, or refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or information, or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person”.

Under this definition, the actions of the five officers who stopped Mr Somchai’s vehicle and forcibly removed him from it amount to an act of forced disappearance. Furthermore, all those persons involved in concealing the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person or authorising such acts may also be held to account under this definition. The question then arises as to why these men should not be held accountable in accordance with international standards? Why has Thailand not taken steps to introduce forced disappearance as a grave offence under domestic law? This could be done by a simple act of parliament. Once enacted, the law could be retrospective, to apply not only to the disappearance of Mr Somchai, but also the hundreds of others reported to have been forcibly disappeared in Thailand during recent times, especially in the south of the country.

The disappearance of Mr Somchai is of tremendous significance because it amounts to a challenge to the very foundations of the justice system in Thailand. Is the justice system in Thailand completely incapable of dealing with a case of disappearance even after the initial steps in the crime have become public knowledge? Is the hold that impunity has on the system so strong that it is not possible to break even when there is so much public concern? Is the justice system merely a tool for offering petty gestures, not real justice? These are questions that can no longer be ignored. The public initiatives that followed the first reports of Mr Somchai’s disappearance need to be revived and intensified to find solutions not only to this case but also to obstruct extremely adverse trends in the country. Unfortunately, the wife of Mr Somchai has good reason to doubt the ability of the justice system and the good faith of the government and officers involved in this case. All reasonable people will share her suspicions and doubts. It is beholden on the authorities to prove these unfounded.

— Asian Human Rights Commission

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-16-2004
Countries : Thailand,
Campaigns : Somchai Neelaphaijit
Issues : Enforced disappearances and abductions,