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Missing Lawyer Case Tests Thailand Human Rights


Six years ago, a prominent human-rights lawyer disappeared in Thailand. Despite government promises to resolve the case, nothing is known about his whereabouts. Human-rights groups say the case is a test of Thailand's performance on human rights.

In February 2004, human-rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit spoke of his concerns over police injustice and brutality in southern Thailand.

Somchai accused members of the Thai military of involvement in a raid on an army depot in early 2004. He says five Muslim men who were arrested and tortured in jail were innocent.

That was to be his final public address. Less than three weeks later, Somchai was abducted from the streets of Bangkok, bundled into a car and driven away. He has not been seen since, and his family and fellow activists suspect he is dead.

Five police officers were charged with relatively minor offenses in connection with the abduction.

One was convicted of assault and sentenced to three years in prison. The others were acquitted.

Somchai Homla-or also is a Thai human-rights lawyer, and is not related to the missing man. But he says the disappearance is directly linked to accusations about the torture of the five Muslims, all of whom were cleared of any wrongdoing.

"According to the information we believe that Somchai was enforced disappeared [kidnapped] because he raised [torture] in the court room. We believe some policemen who participated in that torturing might be afraid of being investigated and being prosecuted," he said. "It is one of the reasons why some policemen committed crimes against Mr. Somchai."

The disappearance came as the Thai government was cracking down on sectarian violence in southern Thailand. The region is home to much of the country's Muslim minority. The missing lawyer also was a Muslim and was known for challenging the government on its conduct in the south and taking cases of alleged police and military abuse.

Last year, Human Rights Watch reported five Thai prime ministers have acknowledged that police officers had a role in Somchai's abduction.

But the ultimate perpetrators have never been brought to justice. The Human Rights Watch representative in Thailand, Sunai Pasuk, says that primarily is because of police resistance.

"We have very explicit examples of resistance within the bureaucracy, say for example, the disappearances of Somchai Neelapaichit and other Muslims from southern Thailand, [that] have received no cooperation from the Royal Thai Police," said Sunai.

The Ministry of Justice's Department of Special Investigations has primary responsibility for the case.

But the National Counter-Corruption Commission also has investigated the officers accused of torturing the five Muslims. Late last year, one of the torture victims disappeared, despite being in a witness-protection program.

Hopes for progress in the investigation rose a year ago, shortly after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took office. He told Somchai's wife, in front of a room full of journalists, the investigation would move forward.

"Yes, I will do my very best," he said. "I believe that there is a good chance that there will be progress in term terms of investigations."

But Somchai's wife, Angkhana Neelapaichit, says she has been let down.

"When Abhisit became prime minister and I went to have a meeting with him and I asked him about the Somchai case because I know he always [talks] about the many cases of human-rights abuses in Thailand, and Somchai is one of the cases," she said. "But one year has already passed and I did not see anything [that is] progress."

Human Rights Watch's Sunai Pasuk says despite Mr. Ahbisit's good intentions, the bureaucracy has thwarted the investigation.

"I believe Abhisit was genuine and sincere when he first raised his intentions to address issues about state-sponsored abuses and impunity. But the reality in Thailand is he could not translate his intention into policy," he said. "So we have a prime minister who is well meaning, but cannot administer the state mechanism."

Ministry of Justice investigators recently agreed to widen the case and take into account circumstantial evidence, such as mobile phone records. But human-rights activists warn the agency must ensure its evidence is strong before going to court, or risk having the case collapse.

Activists say Somchai Neelapaichit's case is a test of Thailand's commitment to human rights. But under Thai law, to convict anyone of murder or kidnapping in the case, the prosecutors must either find Somchai or his body.

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