BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ten years ago, a prominent human rights lawyer who was defending fellow Muslims in the insurgency-plagued south disappeared, pushed into a black sedan on a busy Bangkok street, allegedly by five police officers. Somchai Neelapaijit is presumed dead, though his body has not been recovered.
While six prime ministers have over the years acknowledged that police officers and government officials may have been involved in his disappearance on March 12, 2004, his case remains unsolved. Meanwhile, more than 5,700 people have been killed in the southern violence over the past decade - amounting to more than one person per day.
Somchai’s case highlights Thailand’s dismal human rights record, while fuelling distrust of the central government and further radicalising the separatist movement in the three southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia, said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher in Thailand for Human Rights Watch.
Other victims of state violence in the Deep South had hoped Somchai's “enforced disappearance” - his detention by state officials followed by a refusal to acknowledge or reveal his fate or whereabouts - would open the door to justice.
“Sadly, it never happened. What we see instead is an ongoing attempt to cover up the crime,” Sunai said Tuesday at the launch of a report marking 10 years of Somchai’s disappearance.
Military and police officers allegedly involved in such cases “remain untouchable”, while victims “live in fear that if they speak out, they too can be disappeared”, he said.
“This feeds into the radicalisation of the separatist movement. They use human rights violations such as enforced disappearances to galvanise, recruit and justify their own acts of brutality.”
NO BODY, NO MURDER
“Ten Years Without Truth”, a report by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), chronicles the tortuous legal history of Somchai’s case, highlighting the poor use of forensic evidence, failure to follow and develop leads and restrictive interpretation of national and international law.
It demonstrates “a lack of political will to resolve a case that remains emblematic of the culture of impunity in Thailand”, ICJ said.
Tarit Pengdith, head of Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations (DSI), told Thomson Reuters Foundation the case has not been neglected and will not be closed despite a key obstacle.
“Under Thai laws, the fact that the body was not discovered is the limitation in bringing a prosecution under murder charges,” Tarit said.
Activists accuse DSI of a coverup - a charge bolstered when the agency told reporters in December that Somchai’s case files went missing after anti-government protesters broke into DSI headquarters and destroyed a file cabinet. After an outcry, DSI said the files had been found.
Only one of the five police officers, Police Major Ngern Tongsuk, was sentenced in 2006 to three years in prison for assaulting Somchai, but he was later released on bail and went missing. His family claims he disappeared in a 2008 mudslide in northern Thailand. Then in 2011, a court overturned the sentence, saying witness accounts and evidence were inconclusive.
Angkhana Neelaphaijit, Somchai’s wife and a human rights activist who founded the Justice for Peace Foundation (JPF), said her family was offered money and scholarships for the children to study abroad in exchange for keeping silent.
“We decided not to accept any money but to continue to battle, to fight for justice,” she said.
“No one has been convicted and there is no guarantee this sort of thing won’t happen again. This culture of impunity needs to be stopped, not just for me or my family but for hundreds of others who have suffered serious injustice.”
NO ASSURANCE FOR SAFETY
Enforced disappearances have been “shockingly common” for many decades, as a crime-busting strategy by police, Sunai says.
In 2007, HRW documented 22 cases of enforced disappearances, with strong evidence suggesting the involvement of Thai security forces, while a 2012 JPF report cited 40 incidents involving 59 people across the country, almost half of them from the Deep South. Victims included suspected insurgents and drug traffickers as well as human rights activists.
Somchai’s case is the only one that has made it to court, activists say.
“What it shows is that… if you're an enemy of the state, you're no longer safe,” Sunai said. “It also sends a chilling message to human rights defenders who try to speak up against injustice.”
Security forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings in the Deep South. While none have faced criminal action, this may soon change.
After three young brothers - aged 6, 9 and 11 - were killed, two military rangers admitted to the murders. Activists hope they will be put on trial to show Thailand takes human rights violations by state agents seriously.
However, whether or not the local Malay Muslims in the Deep South will see this as justice - the two who confessed are also ethnic Malays - remains to be seen.
(Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana.)