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(Bangkok) - Thai authorities should immediately investigate the murder of Prajob Nao-opas, a prominent environmentalist in Chachoengsao province, Human Rights Watch said today. The government's measures to protect human rights defenders, including environmentalists, who stand up for their communities have consistently proved to be inadequate.
On February 25, 2013, at around 2 p.m., a gunman shot 43-year-old Prajob four times at a garage on the Phanom Sarakham-Ban Sang road in Chachoengsao province's Phanom Sarakham district as he was waiting for mechanics to repair his pickup truck. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Prajob was seriously wounded from the 11mm bullets and died while being rushed to the hospital by villagers at the shooting scene. The gunman escaped in a getaway car.
"The cold-blooded killing of Prajob marks yet another example of the fundamental failure of Thai authorities to protect activists who risk their lives while defending their communities," said Brad Adams, Asia director. "The government must undertake a serious investigation to bring those responsible for his death to justice, regardless of the status or political affiliation of the killers."
Since February 2012, Prajob had led villagers in a campaign to expose the dumping of toxic waste in Chachoengsao province's Phanom Sarakham and Plaeng Yao districts. Many ponds in the area have been filled with dangerous chemicals from industrial estates along Thailand's eastern seaboard. According to the Chachoengsao provincial public health office, water sources and farmland have been contaminated by a wide number of toxic substances - such as carcinogenic phenol at a level 30 times the safety limit. The dumpsites are primarily located on high ground, resulting in toxic waste running off and entering waterways and ponds.
Despite regular public protests and a large number of complaints filed by Prajob and other villagers about the waste dumping in Chachoengsao province, the Thai government took little action until Prajob managed to get the issue into the national news headlines in August 2012. Only then did the Justice Ministry's Department of Special Investigation (DSI) announce that it would treat the chemical waste disposal in Chachoengsao province as a special and urgent case under the DSI's purview.
In December 2012, Prajob told his family that he had received warnings from the Chachoengsao police that there might be an attempt on his life. Since then, he noticed and reported to the police that he was frequently followed and photographed by unidentified men on motorcycles.
Despite these explicit threats, no one at either provincial or national level proposed any protective measures for Prajob. Prajob's family and members of his network told Human Rights Watch they are now living in fear, not knowing who might be the next target of deadly attacks.
Since 2001, more than 30 human rights defenders and environmentalists have been murdered in Thailand. In a telling indication of impunity, a suspect has been charged in fewer than 20 percent of the cases, and those convicted tend to have lowest levels of responsibility, such as the getaway car driver.
"Police investigations have been characterized by half-hearted, inconsistent, and inefficient police work, and an unwillingness to tackle questions of collusion between political influences and interests and these killings of activists," Adams said.
The government has also failed to provide adequate witness protection to those who saw these killings, which allows intimidation of those witnesses into silence and undoes efforts to successfully prosecute those responsible.
"The often willful negligence and corruption of government officials places activists in the crosshairs, leaving them to face deadly threats without protection," Adams said. "Thai authorities should immediately investigate and punish the killing of Prajob and many other environmental advocates, before more courageous advocates are killed."