THAILAND: What is the point of Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation?

July 22, 2005

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

What is the point of Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation?

For at least the third time, Thailand’s Ministry of Justice has announced that its Department of Special Investigation (DSI) will take over the inquiry into disappeared human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit. The announcement came after Somchai’s wife went to Geneva to tell the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which is considering Thailand’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that the government had failed her and her family.

In the days after the lawyer went missing last March 2004, the prime minister gave assurances that all necessary steps would be taken to find out what happened to Somchai after he was forcibly removed from his car in Bangkok. Five police officers were quickly identified as having something to do with the abduction, and charged with relatively minor criminal offences. They have all pleaded not guilty, and no one is any closer to knowing what happened to Somchai, although it is commonly accepted that senior persons in the administration were behind the disappearance.

On at least two previous occasions the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received commitments from the government of Thailand that the DSI had taken up the case. The first time was last August, when the former Minister of Justice Pongthep Thepkanjana wrote to the AHRC that, “An ad hoc committee under the responsibility of the Special Investigation Department¡K has been set up to work on information gathering, forensic evidence as well as other investigation for the case”. The committee, he added, had made “a lot of progress”. By September it was evident that there was no committee and no progress. So much for the DSI, part one.

However, rumours and public assurances that the DSI was doing something about Somchai continued to float around. Even two deputy prime ministers were appointed to oversee the case. Surely something was being done? But nothing more was heard about the matter. Then, this May, the AHRC received a second written statement from the Ministry of Justice that, yes, the DSI was on the case; this time from the Deputy Director-General of the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection, Kobkiat Kasivivat. “The Ministry of Justice,” he wrote, “Has assigned the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection, Central Institute of Forensic Science and the Department of Special Investigation to co-proceed in related issues” on the case. It had also “given an order to the Department of Special Investigation to take further investigation, but the whereabouts of Mr Somchai are still undiscovered.” Sounds familiar: DSI, part two.

This week, we again have media reports of the same: “Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Wannasathit¡K said the DSI decided to take over the Somchai case [on July 19] because people in the South suspected official involvement in his disappearance¡K” the Bangkok Post wrote, among others. Here we go again: DSI, part three.

Almost a year and a half since Somchai was forcibly disappeared and the government of Thailand seems to be doing nothing other than playing football with the Department of Special Investigation. Every time public attention is drawn to the case, the DSI name gets kicked up, while the perpetrators of the lawyer’s disappearance–and those behind them–continue to enjoy impunity.

Under the circumstances, the question that must be asked is what is the point of the DSI? Does it serve any real purpose or is it just a government plaything? What is the extent of its resources and abilities? When can we expect to see evidence that it is capable of doing anything other than further demoralising victims and their families?

Take the complaint of Ekkawat Srimanta, who was brutally tortured by police in Ayutthaya province, which was supposedly taken up by the DSI. Given the mounds of evidence in that case, where the victim was taken straight to hospital with hundreds of electrical burns all over his genitals and other body parts, the DSI should have been able to lodge criminal charges against the perpetrators pretty quickly, right? Yet one of the alleged perpetrators, Police Lieutenant Colonel Seubsak Pinsaeng turned up in court this week to testify against another person who has accused him of torture, and told the court that he was back at duty as Ekkawat’s case had ‘gone quiet’.

The killing of environmentalist Charoen Wat-aksorn has also reportedly been handled by the DSI. More than a year has passed since his murder and only the hired gunmen have been indicted. His widow has insisted that the investigators can identify the persons behind the killing, but as they are influential people they too have enjoyed impunity. The DSI has sat on the case for a year without result, and Charoen’s widow says that it has excluded a great deal of evidence from its investigation. After meeting with her on June 21, when she led protesters to the front of their offices, the Minister of Justice and the Director of the DSI agreed to ‘reopen’ the investigation. What this means in practice remains to be seen.

In its second submission to the U.N. Human Rights Committee this July, the sister organisation of the AHRC, the Asian Legal Resource Centre stressed the need for a stronger, faster and more transparent Department of Special Investigation. This requires increases in budget, personnel and training. However, above all, the management style of the department must be changed. The DSI has an important role to play in effecting human rights in Thailand, not least of all as at present it is the only criminal investigation agency not under full control of the police. It should not be a toy for politicians or senior bureaucrats to bounce around every time they need to ameliorate criticism over inaction on cases of public concern. The DSI must put the needs of victims and their families ahead of the needs of members of parliament and cabinet. It must be willing and able to operate more autonomously and with greater initiative. It must be freed from the obstruction of police and other powerful persons and agencies that may fear the outcome of its investigations.

And whatever else, the DSI is no substitute for an independent body to receive, investigate and prosecute complaints of grave human rights abuse against police officers and other state officials. Had Thailand such an agency already, the wife of Somchai Neelaphaijit, as well as the wife of Charoen Wat-aksorn, Ekkawat Srimanta and numerous others besides would not be wondering how they will ever get justice in Thailand. They would not have to go to the Minister of Justice to make special requests for proper investigations, as if a privilege rather than a right. They would not have to hear one, two, three or more times that ‘the DSI has taken the case’, without evidence to suggest that this is anything other than a cruel joke. So all joking aside, what is the point of the Department of Special Investigation?


Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-84-2005
Countries : Thailand,
Campaigns : Somchai Neelaphaijit
Issues : Enforced disappearances and abductions, Human rights defenders,