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

The Guardian, 1/3/14

Alliance of Lawyers at Risk urgently seeks volunteers to provide unarmed protection for those under threat for their rights work

The death of Nelson Mandela was a reminder that it was as a lawyer that he first ran into serious trouble with the authorities in South Africa. Around the world, from Colombia to Nepal, from Mexico to Indonesia, there are still many lawyers under threat of prison or death as a direct result of their work.

It is three years now since the Alliance of Lawyers at Risk was launched in conjunction with Peace Brigades International (PBI), the organisation that sends volunteers around the world to provide unarmed protection for those under threat because of their human rights work.

The list of their members is a long one – Sir Henry Brooke, Peter Roth, Lord Woolf, Baroness Scotland, Phil Shiner, Dinah Rose, Nicholas Green, Geoffrey Robertson, Michael Mansfield, Lord Carlile, Sir Geoffrey Bindman to name but a few – but they are now urgently seeking new supporters and activists with legal skills for 2014.

“Lawyers in some countries are regularly subjected to threats to themselves or their families, are physically attacked and even abducted and forcibly ‘disappeared’ simply for doing their jobs,” says Susi Bascon of PBI UK. “In Colombia alone, as many as 25 lawyers may be killed each year.”

There are a variety of ways that lawyers in countries that don’t face such daily perils can help: sending fact-finding delegations to affected countries, assisting in the preparation of submissions to governments, and amicus curiae briefs, helping with the training of local lawyers, and providing financial support for PBI’s protection work.

One of the most recent interventions in Colombia was in the case of David Ravelo Crespo, a human rights campaigner jailed for 18 years for a murder of which he vigorously protests his innocence. In September, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) presented an amicus curiae report in relation to his conviction before the superior tribunal of Santander in Colombia. According to Kirsty Brimelow QC, president of the BHRC, irregularities in the case not only affect Ravelo, but have an impact on the exercise of due process in Colombia.

Of lawyers in Colombia, Brimelow says: “I’m lucky that I can work in London with minimal fear of being shot for my work. It’s a real threat in Colombia and lawyers and judges are frequently gunned down. One aspect of our work is that we are able to act as a bridge between government and victims and support dialogue. Colombia has great laws and a well-drafted constitution. However, the system is drowning in the sheer volume of cases – there is a backlog of two million – and the gap between court rulings and implementation is wide.” Brimelow, who has met President Juan Manuel Santos on two occasions, added that the Colombian government had “flung doors open to international human rights lawyers”.

There are grave dangers, too, in Nepal. Mandira Sharma is the chairperson and co-founder of Advocacy Forum (AF), Nepal’s leading organisation of human rights lawyers which was formed to address cases of rights violations for victims of the civil war which only ended in 2006 and in which 16,000 people died. As many of its cases are against senior security officials, its lawyers routinely face threats and obstruction to their work.

In January, UK authorities arrested Colonel Kumar Lama of the Nepalese army and charged him with two counts of torture under universal jurisdiction law. He is accused of committing crimes during the civil war. Nepal has accused Britain of breaching its sovereignty by carrying out the arrest and the case will be back in court this month. Because of their work relating to the case, Mandira and her colleagues were described as “traitors” in the media in Nepal and there are concerns for her safety.

Another case in which the Alliance and PBI have been involved is that of the disrupted prosecution for genocide of the former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Rios Montt, who was found guilty by a domestic court in May of ordering the massacre of 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil people during the country’s civil war in the early 1980s.

The conviction was overturned within a few days. Edgar Pérez, the lead Guatemalan prosecutor, told the Guardian earlier this year: “We hope to get a decision handed down [from the Inter-American Commission] that will put pressure on the national courts so that we can get back to the [80-year] sentence.”

PBI members accompanied Pérez to court hearings and meetings with government officials. “I know I’m being followed and that my phone is being intercepted but if I’m accompanied there’s a permanent reminder that the international community is watching.”

More help for such cases is urgently needed, says Susi Bascon, and members of the legal community – lawyers, judges, paralegal workers – are encouraged to contact her if they would like to contribute in any way.