Thailand’s ‘half-hearted’ probe into fate of missing rights lawyer – ICJ

The family and supporters of a Thai human rights lawyer who disappeared ten years ago, say successive Thai governments made only half-hearted attempts at finding the truth.

Somchai Neelapaijit was defending clients from Thailand’s troubled southern provinces, who were accused of attacking a military base.

Mr Somchai, who had alleged police tortured the Muslim suspects, was pulled from his car on March 12th 2004 and not been seen since.

Now, the International Commission of Jurists is calling for the case to be reopened.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Sam Zarifi, regional director, Asia and the Pacific, International Commission of Jurists

ZARIFI: There have been a number of investigations and legal attempts, unfortunately most of them half-hearted.

And the ICJ has been documenting the problems of the investigation and the legal proceedings, and what is clear is that the case was never investigated as a serious crime, that is, as a homicide or even as a kidnapping. A few weeks after Somchai’s disappearance, five police officers were charged with the crime based on circumstantial evidence, but the prosecution did not use forensic evidence properly, did not pursue the case properly, and at the end of the day the case was for robbery, basically coercing Somchai into a car. And the end result was that although the case was not finished, ten years later – it’s now with the Supreme Court of Thailand – four of the five police officers were acquitted at the trial level. One was convicted of engaging in robbery, but given a three-year sentence. He was put on bail, and then later he disappeared himself under very mysterious circumstances.

And unfortunately, very recently we’ve heard from the Thai investigative authorities, the Department of Special Investigations, that they’re thinking about closing the case. And in fact just a few months ago we had a very odd situation where in the middle of the protests in Bangkok, the DSI announced that it had lost the case files. And then after we protested a few days later, they said no, actually we found the case files.

Now this obviously indicates a not very serious approach to a case that is now emblematic of the problem of enforced disappearances in Thailand, in Southeast Asia, frankly in the world.

LAM: Even if the government wanted to do something about this case and further the case, it’s well known that the Thai security apparatus is fairly powerful. Do you realistically expect the politicians to take (them) on, do you think that it might not be an uphill battle for the ICJ?

ZARIFI: This case is now so prominent nationally and internationally there will be an event on Friday in Geneva at the United Nations Human Rights Council focussing on this case, that I think Thai politicians understand that they must grapple with it.

And one good sign in the past has been that when they’ve allowed the investigation to continue, they’ve had some results, and then there’s been political interference. But we don’t think that that political interference is intractable.

We think that with enough public pressure nationally and internationally, the government will have to respond to this case. And of course this case is not going anywhere, Somchai is not forgotten, and I think that political pressure will build and yield results.

And enforced disappearances are very serious human rights violation, because it essentially means that agents of the state have control over someone, potentially killed that person, but refused to acknowledge it. And this places the immediate victim of the enforced disappearance outside the law, that’s a terrible position to be in.

But that also means that for the family, there is never an acknowledgement that there is a homicide or that the person is missing. So Somchai’s family have to struggle to get access to bank accounts to get control over property, to be able to pay taxes, to do 100 legal things that you need a certificate of death for, or at least an acknowledgement that somebody has gone missing.

And of course, the absolute lack of closure. As we’ve heard from Angkhana Neelapaijit, Somchai’s widow, frankly, who has been working tirelessly on his case. They don’t even have a tombstone to be able to gather around and commemorate his absence. And it’s a strong signal of a state that is rife with impunity, absolutely unaccountable.

LAM: If, as you say the Thai state has decided to close the case, may we assume then, that the official verdict is that Khun Somchai was murdered or is no longer alive?

ZARIFI: Well that’s an important point actually. Very early, about a year after the disappearance, after the initial trial, the-then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra himself a former police officer, actually stated publicly that he knew that Somchai had been killed, and that the case presented difficulties because it implicated senior police officers. And we have heard on numerous occasions from Thai prime ministers, Attorneys-General, top police officers, that they believe that Somchai has been killed.

Astonishingly, the courts have refused to allow a homicide investigation to proceed, and they’ve refused to allow Somchai’s family to represent his interests. They’ve actually held that because there is no body, there are no remains found, that they do not view the case as a homicide and that his family can’t represent his interests. And this is obviously another travesty of justice, and the fact that on the one hand, the Thai government clearly acknowledges that Somchai was killed, but meanwhile, the investigation does not proceed in the courts on the basis of a homicide investigation.

To be clear, under international law, an enforced disappearance is an ongoing violation, it’s the failure of the state to acknowledge it. So it’s not that we can say ten years have passed, today the failure of the state to acknowledge…

LAM: So you’re saying there’s no statute of limitation?

ZARIFI: There is no statute of limitations, and to its credit, the Thai government has acknowledged the seriousness of the problem of enforced disappearances.

It’s signed the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearances two years ago, but it hasn’t ratified it yet, that means it’s still not implemented in national law.

But even by signing it, it has assumed the obligation that it will not act contrary to the spirit of the convention.

And a very clear part of that convention is the demand that the government must investigate the case until it finds an answer, and a key part is the right to truth of the survivors and family of Somchai.