It has been four years since Somchai Neelaphaijit disappeared; four long years of heartbreak for his family, four years of unanswered questions.
Somchai did not disappear by accident, but by force. Yet despite wide publicity and persistent efforts to hold the culprits to account, Thailand’s criminal justice system has utterly failed a person who in life had not failed it.
Somchai was a lawyer with a keen sense of justice, and a good one at that. He took on cases that others wouldn’t touch, cases that didn’t earn him any friends in high places. He successfully defended accused terrorists and separatists. He set up a free legal aid service and received a national award in acknowledgement of his work.
Prior to disappearing, Somchai met with five young men in police custody who said that they had been tortured. According to letters that he prepared on their behalf, they had been kicked, electrocuted and urinated upon. One had been hanged from the hook of a toilet door and hit on the head with a lump of wood.
On March 11, 2004 Somchai publicly accused the police of torture and said that he would take the case to the highest levels. Coming from him, this was no idle warning. Someone took it seriously. The following night, a car stopped his on a main road in Bangkok. Eyewitnesses recall seeing a group of men forcing another into their vehicle and then driving the two cars away. That was the last time anyone saw Somchai.
Over a month later, metropolitan police investigators arrested five officers. Four were serving with the elite Crime Suppression Division, the fifth with the Tourist Police.
They were not charged with abducting Somchai, because Thailand’s criminal code only specifies kidnapping for ransom. Nor could they be charged with murder, because there was no body. So they were accused of coercion and gang robbery. Ironically, they faced 15 years in jail for stealing Somchai’s car but no more than three for dragging off Somchai himself.
The work of the public prosecutor’s office was woefully inadequate, bordering on willfully incompetent. Prosecutors assigned to the trial changed constantly and were often unprepared; the court repeatedly allowed them time to search for misplaced documents and review evidence. At some stages, only a junior lawyer was present in the room.
By contrast, the defendants dominated the court. Their apparent ringleader at times seemed to run the trial, sitting at his counsel’s desk rather than in the place of the accused, and addressing the judge directly even when not on the stand.
The investigators and prosecutors botched their evidence. Eyewitnesses were intimidated and not briefed. Some reversed their statements, saying had they known they would have to testify they would never have come forward. One was too frightened even to glance at the accused.
Important mobile phone records that linked the defendants together, to the place of the crime and to other police were not properly obtained or presented. The five gave implausible and contradictory statements about how the data was wrong and forged, but these were not explored. Many related witnesses and other documents were never presented.
In January 2006 the court ruled out the telephone evidence, which was needed to convict all the men. It relied upon original witness testimonies to reach a compromise judgment that found only one guilty of coercion. He filed an appeal and was released.
The prosecutor did not challenge the acquittal of the other four despite the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, saying publicly that he knew the police were responsible for Somchai’s death. Exactly what he had learned and how was never revealed, as neither he nor any other senior government official was called to give evidence.
In the two years since, the case has stayed with the Department of Special Investigation, under the Justice Ministry. For some time it was mishandled personally by the department’s director, Pol. Gen. Sombat Amornvivat. After the 2006 coup, Sombat was transferred. His successor made no progress, despite some goodwill.
There is little chance of good news any time soon. Sombat is now back as a deputy national police chief and an advisor to his brother, who is the justice minister. The new special investigation head, his former deputy, was once a superior of the police accused of abducting Somchai. They are all also back to work.
The declining fortune of Somchai Neelaphaijit’s case exemplifies these four years of declining rule of law in his country. But the chain of bungling and wrongdoing extending its length runs back to far earlier than that, into decades-old problems in the policing, prosecuting and trying of criminal cases in Thailand that allow for disappearances, killings and torture to continue unabated and unsolved.
For these reasons March 12, 2004 must not and will not be forgotten. Anyone concerned about human rights in Thailand, indeed in Asia, cannot but acknowledge the debt owed to Somchai for what he achieved during his life, and what he has continued to signify in death.
In Somchai is Thailand. By remembering and documenting his achievements as well as his loss we do a service not only to him but also to thousands of unsung others for whom he no longer has the opportunity to stand up and speak out.
Source: No justice for disappeared Thai lawyer (UPI)
See further: Somchai Neelaphaijit homepage
The disappearance of a person & the defects of a system (AHRC) (Trial proceedings & analysis)