Jan 072014

Human Rights Watch
After a Decade, Files in Somchai Neelapaijit’s Case Go Missing
December 13, 2013

“Successive Thai governments have engaged in cover-ups to hide the identities of those responsible for Somchai’s abduction and feared murder. Suddenly the government is claiming that the files were stolen, a convenient excuse for the authorities to close Somchai’s case and let those responsible off the hook for justice.”
Brad Adams, Asia director

(New York) – The Thai government needs to account for missing documents in the case of the enforced disappearance and presumed murder of a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer nearly a decade ago, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 12, 2004, Somchai Neelapaijit was pulled from his car in Bangkok, allegedly by five police officers, and never seen again. No body was ever recovered.

On December 12, 2013, the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) told reporters that Somchai’s case files went missing after anti-government protesters broke into DSI headquarters and destroyed one of the file cabinets. No other cases stored in the same maximum security zone were damaged or stolen, the department said. Somchai’s family told Human Rights Watch they feared that the DSI would use this as an excuse to stop the investigation, an outcome the family said officials told them was likely.

Leaders of the protest told Human Rights Watch that none of their supporters had entered the file storage room and stolen Somchai’s case files. They said they believed the files implicated police officers linked to their opponent, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“Successive Thai governments have engaged in cover-ups to hide the identities of those responsible for Somchai’s abduction and feared murder,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Suddenly the government is claiming that the files were stolen, a convenient excuse for the authorities to close Somchai’s case and let those responsible off the hook for justice.”

At the time of his enforced disappearance, Somchai was involved in a lawsuit alleging widespread police torture of Muslim suspects in the insurgency-ridden southern border provinces.

On January 13, 2006, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that government officials were involved in Somchai’s abduction and killing: “The DSI is working on this case and murder charges are being considered. I know Somchai is dead, circumstantial evidence indicated that…and there were more than four government officials implicated by the investigation.” He said that collecting evidence and witnesses was “not easy because this case involves government officials.”

Over the past nearly 10 years, six prime ministers – including the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister – have failed to press the DSI to investigate the case in anticipation of criminal prosecutions of those responsible. In April 2005, Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelapaijit, submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressing disappointment that Thai authorities had failed to produce information on Somchai’s fate or whereabouts.

In a March 2007 report, “It Was Like Suddenly My Son No Longer Existed,” Human Rights Watch documented 22 cases of enforced disappearance that strongly implicated the Thai police and military. In none of these cases has there been a successful criminal prosecution of the perpetrators.

Human Rights Watch urged Thai authorities to take all necessary steps to stop the practice of enforced disappearances, including by making enforced disappearance a criminal offense.

In a much-publicized attempt to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and the rule of law, the Yingluck government on January 9, 2012, signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, but has yet to take steps towards ratification. The Thai penal code still does not recognize enforced disappearance as a criminal offense.

“Somchai’s ‘disappearance’ reflects glaring problems of state-sponsored abuses and the culture of impunity in Thailand,” Adams said. “Prime Minister Yingluck needs to demonstrate political courage by pressing the Justice Ministry to at last bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Background Information

Five police officers – Police Major Ngern Tongsuk, Police Lieutenant Colonel Sinchai Nimbunkampong, Police Lance Corporal Chaiweng Paduang, Police Sergeant Rundorn Sithiket, and Police Lieutenant Colonel Chadchai Leiamsa-ngoun – were arrested in April 2004 in connection with Somchai’s case and charged with coercion and robbery. None have been charged with the more serious crimes of abduction or other offenses connected to the enforced disappearance.

On January 12, 2006, the Central Criminal Court found Police Major Ngern guilty of physically assaulting Somchai and sentenced him to three years of imprisonment. The other four accused police officers were acquitted due to insufficient evidence. The judge concluded that the assault led to Somchai’s “disappearance” and criticized the efforts of the police to bring justice to this case. Specifically, the telephone records of the five police officers – which showed that they were in contact with one another in the days leading up to the abduction and in the vicinity of the scene of the crime – were not admissible, because they were not original or certified copies of the records. Police Major Ngern, who had been free on bail while appealing his case, was reported “missing” in a mudslide on September 19, 2008, while supervising his construction business on the Thai-Burmese border.

On March 11, 2011, the Appeals Court overturned the conviction of Police Major Ngern and dismissed the case against all other defendants citing the lack of evidence against them. The court also removed the wife and children of Somchai from being co-plaintiffs in the case, making it impossible for them to represent the family’s interests in any further legal actions. The reason that the court gave for removing them was that under section 5(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code, a co-plaintiff must only be of a deceased person or a person who is unable to act for him or herself. In this case, the court ruled that there was not sufficient proof that Somchai was dead, and therefore his family could not act on his behalf as joint plaintiffs with the public prosecutor.

At present, Somchai’s case is under consideration by Thailand’s Supreme Court.

Jan 072014

We, the undersigned 62 regional and international organizations, express outrage over the Lao Government’s ongoing failure to shed light on the enforced disappearance of prominent activist and civil society leader Sombath Somphone. 

December 15, 2013 marks the one-year anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance. Sombath was last seen on the evening of December 15, 2012 in Vientiane. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage showed that police stopped Sombath’s car at a police post. Within minutes after being stopped, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove away. Analysis of the CCTV footage shows that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers. This fact supports a finding of government complicity.

Despite the Lao Government’s pledge to “thoroughly and seriously” investigate Sombath’s disappearance [1], the authorities’ probe has been inadequate and unproductive. On January 18, 2013, 65 NGOs signed a joint letter to Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong to express their concern over Sombath’s disappearance. Since then and in spite of widespread international calls for his return, including from the European Union (EU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) parliamentarians, the USA and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sombath’s whereabouts remain unknown and there has been no progress in the investigation into the circumstances of his enforced disappearance. In addition, the authorities have rejected offers of technical assistance to analyze the CCTV footage.

For the past 30 years, Sombath has pushed tirelessly for expansion for civil society space and rights of the rural poor and young people to have a voice in the development of Lao society and governance. Shortly before his disappearance, Sombath played a key role in organising the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), a civil society forum that preceded the official Asia-Europe Summit Meeting. At the forum, discussions on land and water issues, and poorly regulated FDIs which threatened people’s livelihoods were discussed openly for the first time in Laos.

Sombath’s enforced disappearance is not an isolated incident. To this day, the whereabouts of nine people, two women, Kingkeo and Somchit, as well as seven men, Soubinh, Souane, Sinpasong, Khamsone, Nou, Somkhit, and Sourigna, arbitrarily detained by Lao security forces in November 2009 in various locations across the country remain unknown. The nine had planned peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy and respect of human rights. Also unknown are the whereabouts of Somphone Khantisouk, the owner of an ecotourism guesthouse and an outspoken critic of Chinese-sponsored agricultural projects that were damaging the environment in the northern province of Luang Namtha. He disappeared after uniformed men abducted him in January 2007.

The Lao Government’s failure to undertake proper investigations into all these cases of enforced disappearances violates its obligations under Article 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Laos is a State party. The ICCPR states that governments must provide an “effective remedy” for violations of rights guaranteed by the Covenant, including the right to liberty and security of person.

We call on the Lao Government to:
Establish a new commission tasked with carrying out a prompt, thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into Sombath’s enforced disappearance and return him safely to his family.
Identify and hold accountable those responsible for Sombath’s enforced disappearance.
Undertake a thorough, impartial, and effective investigation into all allegations of enforced disappearances.
Extend an invitation for a country visit by the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
Ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
Respect and protect the rights of all human rights defenders, activists, and members of civil society.

We call on the international community, particularly EU Member States, ASEAN Member States, and the U.S., to:
Raise the issue of Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance with the Lao Government in all bilateral and multilateral fora.
Urge the Lao Government to immediately release all political prisoners and conduct effective and thorough investigations aimed at safely returning victims of enforced disappearances to their families.
Exert political and economic pressure on the Lao Government to ensure the promotion of reforms that guarantee respect for fundamental human rights in accordance with its international obligations.

Signed by:

1. Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma)
2. Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA, Afghanistan
3. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
4. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
5. Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), India
6. Boat People SOS
7. Burma Partnership
8. Bytes for All, Pakistan
9. Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, Cambodia
10. Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Cambodia
11. Cambodian Volunteers for Society, Cambodia
12. Campaign for a Life of Dignity for All (KAMP), Philippines
13. Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), Mongolia
14. Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), Indonesia
15. Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Cambodia
16. FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)
17. Front Line Defenders
18. Gender and Development Advocates (GANDA) Filipinas, Philippines
19. Globe International Center, Mongolia
20. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Pakistan
21. Human Rights Defenders Alert, India
22. Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB), Burma
23. Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), Indonesia
24. Imparsial, Indonesia
25. Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI), Indonesia
26. Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), Indonesia
27. Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), Nepal
28. INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka
29. Institute for Legal Consultation and People Advocacy of North Sumatera (BAKUMSU), Indonesia
30. ISchool-Myanmar, Burma
31. Judicial System Monitoring Program (JSMP), Timor Leste
32. Justice for Peace Foundation, Thailand
33. Knights for Peace, Int’l
34. Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia, Indonesia
35. Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR)
36. Law and Society Trust (LST), Sri Lanka
37. League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI)
38. Life Skills Development Foundation, Thailand
39. Odhikar, Bangladesh
40. People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF), Thailand
41. People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), South Korea
42. People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), India
43. People’s Watch, India
44. Programme Against Custodial Torture and Impunity (PACTI), India
45. Sawit Watch, Indonesia
46. Sehjira Deaf/HoH Foundation, Indonesia
47. Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), Pakistan
48. Solidarity for Asian Peoples’ Advocacies Working Group on ASEAN (SAPA WG on ASEAN)
49. South East Asian Committee for Advocacy (SEACA)
50. Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
51. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), Malaysia
52. Taiwan Association for Human Rights, (TAHR), Taiwan
53. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), Philippines
54. Think Centre, Singapore
55. Thinzar Shunlei Yi Myanmar, Burma
56. Timor Leste National Alliance for International Tribunal (ANTI), Timor Leste
57. Union for Civil Liberty (UCL), Thailand
58. Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR)
59. WomanHealth Philippines, Philippines
60. World Organization Against Torture (OMCT)
61. Yayasan Mandiri Kreatif Indonesia, Indonesia
62. Yayasan Transformasi Lepra Indonesia, Indonesia