Thailand: effective investigation of enforced disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit needed after Supreme Court ruling
The Supreme Court of Thailand today rejected hearing crucial phone evidence in the case against five police officers who have been accused of subjecting prominent Thai lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit to enforced disappearance in Bangkok on 12 March 2004.
The decision essentially shuts down this phase of the 10-year-old case concerning the relatively minor charges of robbery and coercion against five police officers, the ICJ and Justice for Peace Foundation (JPF) said.
The five officers were alleged to have stopped Somchai Neelapaijit at a Bangkok roadside before pushing him into their car. He has not been seen since.
The Court’s decision highlights the pressing need for the Royal Thai Government to investigate the case as a possible homicide, said the ICJ and JPF.
In a statement to the Convention Against Torture Committee in Geneva last month, the Thai Delegation gave assurances that the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) was continuing to investigate Somchai Neelapaijit’s case without any interference.
“Now that the consideration of the evidence in these proceedings has ended, the DSI must step up its investigation into a possible homicide,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ Asia-Pacific Regional Director. “Among other lines of enquiry, the DSI must promptly and effectively investigate the compelling phone evidence which could potentially bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Somchai Neelapaijit’s wife, Angkhana Neelapaijit, Chairperson of JPF, who has been tirelessly fighting for a proper investigation into her husband’s alleged enforced disappearance for 10 years, had asked the Supreme Court to hear evidence from three witnesses who could testify about important phone evidence that had been rejected by the Court of Appeal for not being properly presented by the Prosecution at trial.
The phone evidence was central to the prosecution, as it allegedly established the movements of the accused, their presence at the crime scene at the relevant time, and communications between them.
There were allegedly also other calls of potential interest after Somchai Neelapaijit’s “disappearance”, including to officers in Ratchaburi Province where later searches for Somchai Neelapaijit’s remains were focused. Allegedly, there was also one call to someone in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Supreme Court reasoned today that as the witnesses could have testified at the original trial, the evidence was not “new” and therefore would not be considered.
The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether Angkhana Neelapaijit and her family have standing as joint plaintiffs in the proceedings.
On 11 March 2011, the Court of Appeal ruled that as the accused had only been charged with coercion and gang robbery, it “could not be absolutely confirmed that Somchai Neelapaijit had been injured to such an extent that he could not act by himself or had been indeed assaulted to death.”
Therefore, the court ruled, Angkhana and her family could not participate in the proceedings on Somchai Neelapaijit’s behalf.
This ruling came notwithstanding the fact that the Civil Court had already declared Somchai Neelapaijit to be a “disappeared” person.
Under international law, family members of a victim of an enforced disappearance are also victims, and should be recognized as such in the Thai justice system.
Somchai Neelapaijit, a lawyer and human rights defender from the South of Thailand, was stopped at a Bangkok roadside on 12 March 2004 and pulled from his car by a group of men. He has not been seen since.
At the time, Somchai Neelapaijit was defending clients from Thailand’s restive southern provinces who were accused of attacking a military base as part of the ongoing insurgency in the region. Somchai Neelapaijit had alleged that police had subjected the Muslim suspects to torture.
On 8 and 29 April 2004, the Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for five police officers for their alleged participation in robbing Somchai Neelapaijit and forcing him into a vehicle, charging the officers with coercion and gang-robbery.
The trial of the five police officers commenced on 12 July 2005.
The Court handed down its verdict on 12 January 2006, acquitting four of the accused and convicting Police Major Ngern Thongsuk of the relatively minor charge of coercion.
On 12 April 2006, Police Major Ngern Thongsuk appealed his conviction. On 30 April 2006, the Prosecutor filed a cross-appeal on behalf of Angkhana Neelapaijit. All five accused appealed against the interlocutory order of the Criminal Court that permitted Angkhana Neelapaijit and her four children to join cause with the Public Prosecutor.
On 11 March 2011, five years after Angkhana Neelapaijit filed her appeal, the Appeal Court issued its decision, finding that:
- Somchai Neelapaijit’s wife, Angkhana Neelapaijit, and his children could not be considered as joint plaintiffs in the proceeding;
- The conviction of Police Major Ngern Thongsuk should be overturned; and
- With respect to the remaining four accused, there was insufficient evidence to convict them.
On 10 May 2011, Angkhana Neelapaijit appealed to the Supreme Court both the decision on her family’s standing and the substantive issues in the case, requesting it to consider further evidence.
In addition to a statement of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on 13 January 2006 acknowledging that Somchai Neelapaijit is dead, numerous government agencies and senior government officials have publicly asserted certainty about his death.
In the report, Ten Years Without Truth: Somchai Neelapaijit and Enforced Disappearances in Thailand, the ICJ documents the tortuous legal history of the case.