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Thai government accused of “new cover-up” in case of disappeared lawyer

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 16 Dec 2013 02:23 PM
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An anti-government protester uses her mobile phone to take a photograph of a placard with a picture of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a rally at a government complex in Bangkok November 29, 2013. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
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BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Human Rights Watch and the family of a human rights lawyer who went missing a decade ago have criticised the Thai government for what the rights group called a new cover-up in the case.

The Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) told reporters on Dec 12 that case files on Somchai Neelapaijit went missing after anti-government protesters broke into DSI headquarters and destroyed one of the filing cabinets, Human Rights Watch said.

No other cases stored in the same maximum security zone were damaged or stolen, HRW quoted DSI as saying. Leaders of the protest denied entering the file storage room and stealing Somchai’s files, said the rights group in a statement entitled “New Cover-Up in Lawyer’s ‘Disappearance’.”

On March 12, 2004, Somchai, a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer, was pushed into a black sedan on a busy Bangkok street, allegedly by five police officers. He was never seen again and no body has been found. Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of Thailand’s current Prime Minister Yingluck, was in power at the time.

Activists believe Somchai's disappearance and presumed murder are related to his defence of five Muslims arrested after southern militants looted an army gun depot in January 2004, a raid that marked the return of a decades-old separatist rebellion. 

“DSI’s claim that it lost Somchai’s case file to anti-government protesters simply lacks credibility, it’s far too convenient for police who wanted to avoid an investigation of criminals in their ranks,” Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“This is yet another clear indication of the pervasive impunity that covers the Thai police force and undermines respect for rights and rule of law,” he added.

EXCUSE TO STOP INVESTIGATION

Somchai’s family fear DSI will use the lost files as an excuse to stop the investigation, which rights groups have criticised for failing to uncover the identities of those responsible for the lawyer’s disappearance.

Despite acknowledgement by past prime ministers that police officers and government officials may have been involved in Somchai's disappearance, the case has not been solved.

In a rare prosecution of a member of the security forces, Police Major Ngern Tongsuk was sentenced to three years in prison in 2006 for assaulting Somchai, then chairman of the Muslim Lawyers Association. The other four accused police officers were acquitted due to insufficient evidence. 

In 2011, the Appeal Court reversed the verdict, saying witness accounts and evidence were inconclusive. Ngern was released on bail after the initial guilty verdict and then went missing. His family said he disappeared in a mudslide in northern Thailand in 2008.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, Somchai’s wife and a human rights activist, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that DSI had not informed the family about the files and she had heard it from journalists.

“It’s really crazy as only Somchai files have been stolen while others are still there,” Angkhana said.

“I will ask for a meeting with the Ministry of Justice within this week for the facts and asking their responsibility on this,” she added. 

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