Post updated 11 March: Conviction overturned >>>

Missing lawyer’s case highlights continued obstacles to peace

On 12 March 2011 it will be seven years since human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit was abducted by policemen from a busy Bangkok street. He is presumed dead. His body has never been found. Attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice have been thwarted at every turn, highlighting the persistent obstructions faced by victims of extra-judicial violence and the enduring problem of impunity – all of which remain major obstacles to the resolution of ongoing conflicts, not only in the restive southern border provinces, but throughout Thailand.

Injustice, Impunity and Abuse

At the time of his disappearance, Somchai was representing several southern Muslim men accused of taking part in the robbery of an army munitions base in Narathiwat province in January 2004. Somchai had also lodged complaints of torture of his clients by security forces whilst they were detained under martial law.

On 11 March this year, the Bangkok Criminal Court is due to read its verdict in the appeal case against five police officers, including Police Major Ngern Thongsuk, who are accused of involvement in Somchai’s disappearance. Ngern was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail in January 2006 for his alleged involvement, but was immediately released on bail after appealing the verdict. The other four were acquitted. Ngern’s appeal verdict has been delayed three times from the original scheduled reading in September 2010, due to the failure of the defendant to show up in court – a requirement by Thai law. Ngern’s family filed a missing persons report the day before the original scheduled hearing, stating that he went missing in a mudslide two years previously – a claim that campaigners find hard to believe.

Rather than being the consequence of the grinding pace of the judicial system, human rights campaigners say these continued delays are the result of concerted attempts to thwart justice.

"Although the procedural technicalities that keep forcing postponements in the reading of the verdict can individually be waved aside as the inevitable details of judicial process and nothing to do with the particulars of the case, seen in context it is clear that they are part of a process not to delay justice, but to sabotage it,"" The Asian Human Rights Commission said in a recent statement.

"The unavoidable conclusion," it said, "is that they are part of a concerted strategy by powerful persons in and behind the scenes to demonstrate once and for all that it is not only pointless, but also dangerous and impertinent to demand justice for gross abuses of human rights by the police and other security officials in Thailand."

In April and May of 2010, Bangkok’s streets were host to the worst political violence in the capital in 18 years. Over 90 people were killed and nearly 2,000 injured, during clashes and a subsequent military crackdown on anti-government protesters who had laid siege to the capital for months. The violent crackdown was carried out under the protection of emergency laws, which offer state authorities and security forces broad powers and immunity from prosecution. The use of extraordinary legal measures has long been an issue of concern for human rights groups, who argue that it is linked to a broader pattern of extra-judicial violence - such as the Krue Se and Tak Bai massacres in southern Thailand, which took place while martial law was in place. No one has been prosecuted for the alleged extra-judicial killings.

Following the Krue Se and Tak Bai massacres, and a rise in violence in the far south, the National Reconciliation Commission was set up, headed by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun. But like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), formed in the wake of last year’s violence in Bangkok, it had only a limited mandate. Both commissions were set up as fact-finding bodies capable of making recommendations but devoid of any authority to lodge legal proceedings.

The TRC has complained of a lack of co-operation from the military and police, and its report into the violence has been delayed. As well as a lack of progress into these investigations, further perceived wrongdoings continue to compound a sense of injustice among anti-government groups. Several prominent ‘red shirt’ leaders were only released on bail in February 2011, nine months after being arrested on terrorism charges. Scores more protesters remain incarcerated without trial and several provinces remain under a state of emergency.

While much focus, political and otherwise, remains on the problems in Bangkok, the insurgency continues to rumble in the far south. Despite concerted military efforts over the past seven years and the continued application of stringent emergency powers, the insurgency shows no real signs of abating. About 4,370 people have died and many thousands more injured in the past seven years of conflict, the large majority of them civilians.

The disappearance of Somchai is just one among countless cases where the judicial system appears to have failed. Police last year also dropped charges against a former soldier allegedly involved in a 2009 attack on the Al-Furqan mosque. The persistent failure to follow through on allegations against state officers reinforces perceptions of impunity, playing into the hands of insurgents, said the International Crisis Group in its latest report on the southern violence.

"Draconian laws that grant security forces sweeping powers remain imposed while justice for serious cases of past abuse remains unaddressed and torture of suspects continues,"" said the report. "This reinforces perceptions of impunity and the insurgency’s narrative of the unjust rule, while aiding recruitment of those willing to take up arms against the Buddhist Thai state.""

Local, regional and international peacebuilders, such as the Working Group on Justice for Peace (WGJP), and the Asian Human Rights Commission, continue to work to strengthen non-violent efforts to protect human rights, promote access to justice and end impunity. Angkhana Neelaphaijit, wife of Somchai and chairperson of the WGJP, is due to address the 16th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2011, to bring its attention to these and other grievances. This is particularly pertinent, given that Thailand is the current chair of the council.

Somchai’s case is more than the demand for justice by a family. It is indicative of the continued barriers to justice faced by victims of extra-judicial violence all across Thailand, where institutions that purport to deliver justice routinely do the opposite, reinforcing a system in which perpetrating rights violations is viewed as acceptable, and attaining redress is considered nothing short of hopeless.

This failure is both a symptom and a cause of the cycle of violence that has long plagued this country. Strengthening the rule of law and tackling impunity are imperative, if there is to be any hope of ending the present cycle of violent conflict.

Update, March 11: Conviction overturned

The Appeals Court on March 11 overturned the conviction of Police Major Ngern Thongsuk of involvement in the disappearance of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit. It also upheld not guilty verdicts against four other officers. The Criminal Court had sentenced Ngern to three years imprisonment on January 12, 2006, after finding him guilty of forcing others into submission. He appealed the verdict and was released on bail. Ngern was not present at the court for the verdict. His family filed a missing persons report last year, claiming he went missing in a mudslide in September 2008.

According to press reports, the court, in overturning the conviction, cited insufficient evidence. The court said the statements given by witnesses were confused and ruled to give the officer the benefit of the doubt. One of the key witnesses, Abdullah Abukoree, an ex-client of Somchai’s, went missing and is presumed dead after disappearing from outside his home in December 2009 after leaving a state witness protection programme.

The case against the five police officers was brought by Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelaphaijit, and their four children. They now have the option of appealing again to the Supreme Court, something they had said they would do if the Appeals Court chose to overturn Ngern’s conviction and uphold the not guilty verdicts against the other four defendants.

Angkhana, as chairperson of the Working Group for Justice and Peace, just this week addressed the 16th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the issue of enforced disappearance in Thailand. Angkhana told the UN council that there were currently 54 unsolved enforced disappearance cases in Thailand, including Somchai’s.

It is vital that pressure continues to be applied on the Thai government to tackle the problem of impunity and the failures of the justice system. Despite the setback in this latest verdict, it is important that local and regional activists, the media, as well as the international community, continue to closely monitor this and other cases and pressure the Thai authorities into turning its lofty rhetoric into genuine action. With an election expected in Thailand by July, it is important to pressure the current Democrat-led government and other political parties on these and other human rights issues. Angkhana and her children, and the families of others who have been forcibly disappeared, deserve to know the truth of what happened to their loved ones and see those responsible brought to justice.

For more general background on the conflict in South Thailand, this Al Jazeera video is worth watching: