The ICJ is concerned at Thailand’s continued failure to bring justice to the loved ones of Karen activist Pholachi ‘Billy’ Rakchongcharoen, who was the victim of an apparent enforced disappearance in 2014, and apparent subsequent killing.
The ICJ calls on the responsible authorities to ensure that there is continuous effective investigation to determine definitively the fate of Billy and deliver justice to his family.
Today, Thailand’s Criminal Courts for Corruption and Misconduct Cases acquitted four Kaeng Krachan National Park officials, the last individuals seen with Billy, of murder-related charges, including premeditated murder and concealing the victim’s body. Only one of the accused, Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park, was convicted of charges and sentenced to three years in prison related to “malfeasance in office” for failing to hand Billy over to the responsible authorities after his arrest.
The Court, constituted of a panel of two judges, indicated that it did not believe that Billy had been released as claimed by the accused. Nevertheless, the Court concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that the park officials orchestrated the killing.
“More than nine years of delays, including by inaction by the government until recently, and still no justice, is a blow to the victims. This constitutes yet another marker of Thailand’s consistent failure to hold accountable perpetrators of serious human rights crimes, potentially committed by State authorities,” said Sanhawan Srisod, ICJ Legal Adviser.
Billy was the victim of an apparent enforced disappearance, as he was last seen on 17 April 2014 in the custody of Kaeng Krachan National Park officials. The officials claimed they detained Billy for illegal possession of honey, but that they released him later the same day.
On 12 September 2019, the DSI located bone fragments, along with an oil tank submerged in water, which they identified as likely belonging to Billy. The subsequent DNA test indicated a maternal relation between the fragment and Billy’s mother, suggesting a blood relationship through the maternal line. However, the Court ruled today that there was insufficient evidence to establish that they belong to Billy, as opposed to other relatives who may have passed away during the same period.
This decision was made despite testimony from State forensic experts affirming the validity of the DNA test used in this case, which needed to be considered alongside other supporting facts. This includes testimonies given by the relatives and cultural expert about the absence of known blood relatives who had passed away without knowledge, and the Karen practice of not scattering the remains of the deceased in the river. Such testimony also aligns with the opinions of international forensic experts, specifically the Independent Forensic Expert Group established by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, who were consulted by the prosecutors’ lawyers.
Enforced disappearance was recently made a specific crime under Thai law, following the adoption of the long-delayed Act on Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance, which came into effect in February this year. Under the Act, and international law, enforced disappearance is a continuous crime, which is not completed until the fate or whereabouts of the victim becomes known. Therefore, to the extent that there is any doubt that the discovered remains belonged to Billy, the crime must be considered to be ongoing and the law is applicable to Billy, even if it was not in force when he first “disappeared.”
Nevertheless, the Prosecution did not attempt to charge the accused with enforced disappearance, and the Court consistently rejected any reference to the crime made by the prosecution during the proceedings. This includes the rejection of expert witnesses proposed by the prosecutor’s lawyers who intended to testify about international law and standards governing enforced disappearance, following the rejections made by the accused.
“It is also unfortunate that the Thai court did not take into consideration the specific nature of the crime of enforced disappearance, often accompanied by very limited circumstantial evidence, which may be the only available means of establishing the crime. Such a crime also normally includes the powerlessness of the victim in the hands of the authorities, the use of state power to destroy direct evidence in an attempt at total impunity or to create the illusion of a perfect crime, all factors that have been taken into consideration in many cases in various jurisdictions worldwide when assessing the possible involvement of the suspects in crimes of this nature,” added Srisod.
During the trial, pursuant to the Act on Establishment of the Criminal Court for Corruption Cases B.E. 2559 (2016), the Court also used the so-called inquisitorial system, which is new to both lawyers and public prosecutors accustomed to the accusatorial style of the usual Thai court system. In this regard, lawyers voiced complaints that the judge on several occasions cut short the follow-up questions that the lawyers had planned to ask, citing that these issues had already been covered during their own examinations and other written submissions.
Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn was convicted under section 157 of the Criminal Code and section 123 of the Organic Act on Counter Corruption B.E. 2542 (1999).
Thailand has signed but not yet ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) and is a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The latter two treaties prohibit conduct making up enforced disappearance, and the crime is recognized as violation of both treaties.
The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and local Thai Civil Society Organizations continue to receive complaints of alleged human rights violations at the hands of security forces constituting serious criminal conduct, including extraterritorial killings, torture and other ill-treatment, and enforced disappearances.
Between 1980 and August 2023, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances also recorded and transmitted 93 cases of alleged enforced disappearance to Thailand. Currently, 77 of these cases remain unresolved.
Unfortunately, the number of cases in which these allegations have been investigated, let alone perpetrators prosecuted, remains low, as are instances where there has been access to effective remedies and provision of reparations for victims. In several instances, alleged victims of torture and other ill-treatment or the families of those who died as a result of these abuses have received some monetary payments falling short of full reparation, but the perpetrators have not yet been brought to justice.
This case also follows the acquittal of five police officers charged with the robbery and coercion of the “disappeared” human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit in December 2015 due to a lack of evidence.
Sanhawan Srisod, Associate International Legal Adviser, ICJ, e: firstname.lastname@example.orgNewsPress releases