March 12, 2004

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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)

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4 responses to “March 12, 2004

  1. Pingback: The disappearance of Somchai Neelappaijit

  2. Missing lawyer’s wife: Thaksin should testify

    Angkhana makes call at UN rights meeting

    ACHARA ASHAYAGACHAT & ANUCHA CHAROENPO

    The wife of missing Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit wants former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to testify as a witness in the case of her husband’s mysterious disappearance. The current Samak Sundaravej government and the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) should make more sincere efforts to bring all wrongdoers in the case to justice including high-ranking police officers, said Angkhana Neelaphaijit yesterday.

    ”I strongly believe the success of the case is determined by the sincerity of the government and the effectiveness of the DSI. Of particular concern is the fact that Pol Gen Sombat Amornwiwat, who was the former supervisor of the five accused persons standing trial in the case before, is now an adviser of the Ministry of Justice,” Mrs Angkhana told the United Nations Human Rights Council session in Geneva yesterday.

    The council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has been investigating Mr Somchai’s disappearance since 2004. Mrs Angkhana is chairperson of the Working Group on Justice for Peace.

    She said Mr Thaksin’s testimony is important since a close colleague of the former prime minister was reported to have approached the Government Identification Information Centre to search for information about Mr Somchai and a picture of him.

    According to her, Mr Thaksin told the media on Jan 13, 2006, the day after the first court gave its verdict on five police officers accused of involvement in Mr Somchai’s disappearance, that he knew ”that Somchai has passed away because evidence suggests so.” That should suggest he must have had enough evidence, she said.

    Mrs Angkhana also called on the government to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in order to guarantee the safety and protection of everyone from enforced disappearance.

    In a related development, Piyawat Kingket, a DSI investigator, said the agency was still working on the Somchai case.

    He said there had been satisfactory progress in the case but refused to elaborate.

    The DSI has interrogated 95 witnesses and collected evidence from the Mae Klong river in Ratchaburi province where the missing lawyer’s body was believed to have been destroyed.

    He said more witnesses would be summoned for questioning and more evidence pertaining to the case would be sent for scientific examination.

    ”We don’t know excatly when the case will be concluded. We will look into it until we can no longer find more evidence and witnesses,” said Pol Col Piyawat. He added the DSI has yet to conclude whether Mr Somchai is dead or not.

    The DSI began to take charge of the investigation into Mr Somchai’s disappearance after Mrs Angkhana lodged a complaint in mid-2005 with the Justice Ministry’s special case committee, demanding that it give the case special treatment because she did not trust police investigators.

    Yesterday marked the fourth year of the lawyer’s disappearance.

    Meanwhile, the prime minister’s special envoy Pittaya Pukkaman has led a delegation to Senegal to attend the March 13-14 summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), which has paid keen interest to the insurgency in Thailand’s deep South.

    (Bangkok Post, 13 March 2008)

  3. Column: Straight to the point
    MURDER WITH IMPUNITY

    By Jon Ungphakorn, Bangkok Post, 9 April 2008

    I could imagine what lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit felt as he gradually realised what was happening to him. I could easily imagine a similar event happening to anyone else in Thailand who dared to challenge the illegal actions of the police

    It is an ordinary Friday morning.

    You leave your office on Ratchadapisek Road at 9am to meet a client at Robinson Department Store, Bangrak. Accompanied by your assistant, you drive along the Expressway and park your car at the South Bangkok Civil Court, where you instruct your assistant to deliver some documents to another client. On arriving at the nearby Robinson Bangrak store, you telephone your client and find out that due to a misunderstanding he is waiting for you at the Robinson Silom store.

    You take a taxi to the store and talk with your client for two hours, then take another taxi to the Central Bankruptcy Court where you meet up with your assistant again. Unknown to you, five mobile phone users are recorded as being close to you throughout the day.

    It’s 2:30pm. You drive back to your office on Ratchadapisek Soi 32, accompanied by your assistant. You stop at a gas station on Chan Road before getting on the Expressway. After spending two hours at the office, you drive to the Chaleena Hotel on Ramkamhaeng Soi 65 to meet a friend. Your assistant goes with you.

    On the way you stop to pray at a mosque near the hotel and have a meal at a nearby restaurant. You arrive at the Chaleena Hotel around 7pm and wait for your friend for well over an hour before deciding to leave. You phone your daughter to tell her you are tired and will be staying the night at your brother’s home nearby.

    At 8:30pm you say goodbye to your assistant at Chaleena Hotel and drive across the Saen Saab Canal to Ramkamhaeng road, where you turn left and drive towards the Lam Salee intersection.

    Suddenly your car is bumped from behind. You get out and see some men seated in a black Toyota sedan which has bumped into the rear of your car. You recognise one of them as a police officer accused of torturing one of your clients. He asks you to accompany the group for some discussions.

    You refuse. He gets out and pushes you towards the rear door of the black Toyota. You shout for help and struggle with the policeman. Some bystanders look on as you are helplessly pushed into the car, which drives away.

    This is what happened to lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit on March 12, 2004, just over four years ago. He was never seen again.

    On Sunday, March 30 of this year, I travelled with a small group led by his wife (and presumed widow), Mrs Angkhana Neelaphaijit and their son and daughters, to retrace the steps of lawyer Somchai on that fateful day. Despite being fully familiar with the events relating to lawyer Somchai’s abduction and disappearance, this was the first time I really felt the horror of the abduction, which took place in a crowded street of Bangkok in front of bystanders.

    I could imagine what lawyer Somchai felt as he gradually realised what was happening to him. I could easily imagine a similar event happening to anyone else in Thailand who dared to challenge the illegal actions of the police, as lawyer Somchai did by publicising the police torture of Muslim suspects who were his clients.

    Five policemen were arrested and tried in connection with the abduction of lawyer Somchai, but eventually only one of them, Police Major Ngern Tongsuk, was convicted of physical coercion and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. He is at present appealing the conviction. The other defendants, including his immediate superior, were found not guilty due to insufficient evidence.

    Unfortunately, the defendants could not be charged with kidnapping under Thai law as they had not demanded any ransom. They could not be charged with murder because no body (or remains) was ever recovered. Both the investigation and the prosecution were carried out so poorly that links to higher-ranking officers were never fully explored.

    It is widely believed, however, that a number of top ranking police officers and very possibly some individuals closely linked to the Thaksin Shinawatra administration were aware of, or involved in, the abduction and presumed murder of lawyer Somchai.

    What happened to lawyer Somchai is particularly shocking because he was a prominent middle-class human rights lawyer abducted in the streets of Bangkok. However, the abduction, torture and killing of Muslim separatist suspects are common in the southern border provinces, and are rarely reported in the media.

    One exception is the widely reported case of Imam Yapa Kaseng, who died in Narathiwat province between March 19-21 of this year while in military custody.

    Taking these events together with the more than 2,000 extrajudicial killings that took place during the 2003 official war on drugs, the mass killings in mysterious circumstances of the entire Sabayoi Youth football team on April 28, 2004, and the deaths of 78 demonstrators taken into military custody at Tak Bai on Oct 25 2004, it is obvious that we live in a country where the military and the police are ready to abduct, torture and kill people they perceive as enemies, with complete disregard to lawful procedures.

    While Thai society allows the military, police and their political masters to remain immune from accountability with regard to state violence and murder, we are all responsible for these crimes.

    Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected senator for Bangkok and a Thai NGO activist.

  4. Powerful people and unsolved murders
    By Frank G. Anderson, March 06, 2009/ UPI Asia

    Buddhist monks at Suan Methatham temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, reported hearing shots in the vicinity this past week. Local residents also told officials they had seen flashlight illumination early in the evening, just before a large fire broke out in a protected forest area near the temple.

    Villagers theorized that a local influential person, possibly facing business conflicts, might have been trying to “resurrect” the old Monk Supoj murder case – in other words, threatening violence against forest preservation activists like the deceased monk.

    Monk Supoj, an environmental activist monk residing at the Suan Methatham religious center in Sansai, in the Fang district of Chiang Mai province, was stabbed to death on June 17, 2005. He and other monks had already been warned by loggers working illegally in the protected forest. “Just because you are monks don’t think you are safe,” they were told.

    The brutal – and still unsolved – murder case was recently shamed further by Thailand’s illustrious Department of Special Investigations – the one that handles all lèse majesté cases – by a police claim that a sexual affair had been at the root of the killing. The new police claim was reportedly based on pubic hair and what is said to be semen, both collected two years after the murder.

    Activists, members of the press and others are suggesting that the police stop making public announcements and submit the evidence to the court where proper determinations can be made. They also say the police should stop offering totally indefensible theories into what is widely regarded as another murder backed by an influential person.

    In its record of the Phra Supoj murder case, the Asian Human Rights Commission says that Monk Supoj and two others had previously lodged a complaint against a local businessman and political interests that were trying to pressure the monks to leave the area. AHRC and police records show that the police refused to accept the monks’ complaint.

    This kind of Thai police refusal is not unusual. When a monk at Watpa Salawan in Nakhonratchasima province filed a complaint with local police claiming he was physically assaulted, police initially told him he would have to leave the monkhood to file. Influential persons were behind the scenes, one of whom was a sponsor and supporter of the temple abbot who did not like the monk who was assaulted.

    Thailand’s litany of unsolved murder cases – and perhaps worse, its record of cases that have been dropped because of “lack of evidence, reluctant witnesses and suddenly confused contradictory courtroom testimony” – is a telltale sign that something is wrong with the justice system, and in a wider context, with its social culture. While the country’s courts are said to be relatively neutral and fair, they are still subject to local influences and vested interests.

    Next Wednesday, another unsolved Thai police investigation will be brought up at a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Bangkok – the case of missing lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit.

    Somchai was kidnapped by a group of Thai policemen on March 12, 2004, and is believed to have been killed sometime afterward. A day or so after his disappearance Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra cavalierly indicated that Somchai had probably had a fight with his wife and would return home in a few days. Later Thaksin admitted that he thought the lawyer had been killed and that government officials were responsible.

    Next week’s panel will include Somchai’s widow, Angkhana Neelaphaijit, and Dr. Kraisak Choonavan, former Thai Senate Foreign Relations Committee head. Kraisak is currently supporting the People’s Alliance for Democracy and is a frequent guest on TV programs to discuss human rights cases.

    The panel discussion is certain to be interesting, but not likely to result in much satisfaction for the victims. Police, although clearly involved in the kidnapping, are relatively immune from honest prosecution.

    The fact that this case and literally dozens of others, like that of Phra Supoj, have remained unsolved, are usually dropped, and only reopened after urgent public demand, indicates that this situation of Thai police inactivity will continue for some time, perhaps decades. That is, there will be more unsolved murders, more human rights abuses, more police involvement and destruction of evidence and the killing or intimidation of witnesses.

    But Thai police have a new top priority issue these days – lèse majesté. They are busy prosecuting both Thais and foreigners deemed to have insulted the monarchy, and are heavily engaged with the Thai army to make sure that Thai subjects throughout the kingdom don’t speak out of turn.

    That was one of lawyer Somchai’s mistakes – speaking out of turn and making it appear as if Thai officials were indeed biased, incompetent and corrupt. He paid grievously for the error.

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