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Thailand: Missing Lawyer Abducted by Police - 2004-04-08

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has admitted that a prominent Muslim lawyer defending suspected Islamic militants was kidnapped by policemen. For weeks the government had denied accusations from rights groups that the police had anything to do with the activist lawyer's disappearance.

Somchai Neelahphaijit disappeared in Bangkok on March 12th. His abandoned car was later found in a nearby province, and he has not been seen since. Rights groups believe Mr. Somchai was kidnapped to silence his allegations that security forces have used heavy-handed tactics to quash recent violence in the country's predominately-Muslim southern provinces.

Mr. Thaksin announced Thursday that an initial investigation showed Mr. Somchai was abducted by policemen based in central Thailand. He said he had no further details, but he said the case would be solved within a week.

Government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair says arrests are expected. "It's safer to say that more truth would be revealed within this week or before the beginning of next week," he says.

At the time of his disappearance, Mr. Somchai was defending five Muslims accused of participating in a raid on an army depot in Narathiwat Province. That raid, in January, was the start of a recent outbreak of violence in the south. He was also defending four suspected Thai members of the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah, and had accused police of beating and torturing his clients.

Somchai Homlaor of the rights group Asia Forum in Bangkok says he thinks the lawyer was kidnapped not only to silence his criticisms, but also because officers wanted to question him about information he may have gleaned from his clients. "This has become the culture and normal practice of some group of policemen in Thailand," he says. "They use bull authority, torture, even kidnapping and killing to the suspect, and this is practice for a long time, including especially in the south."

More than 60 people have been killed in the violence in southern Thailand that began with the January raid. The government blames Muslim separatists, but many analysts believe the violence also stems from a mixture of corrupt politicians, ordinary criminals and rivalry between the police and military.

About five percent of Thais are Muslims, and the vast majority of the five percent live in the south of country, near the border with predominately-Muslim Malaysia.

Mr. Thaksin is due to meet Monday with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to discuss the situation in southern Thailand. Mr. Thaksin fears that Thai Muslim militants are slipping into Malaysia due to weak border controls.