Thai lawyer and human rights defender Somchai Neelaphaijit disappeared on March 12, 2004. At the time of his disappearance, he was representing clients from southern Thailand’s minority Muslim community accused of participating in an attack on an army depot. Somchai filed a complaint that his clients had been tortured while in police custody in an effort to extract confessions. Somchai disappeared the next day and his car was later found abandoned with a fresh dent in the back, suggesting it had been rammed from behind.
In 2004 long-simmering unrest flared in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim southern region. More than a thousand people have been killed, the victims of both militant attacks and harsh government crackdowns. In the aftermath of clashes, security forces often make indiscriminate arrests of those in the area. Somchai successfully represented many of those detained on national security charges. Somchai was known for his success over two decades of defending clients accused of offenses relating to national security, terrorism, and insurgency in the troubled southern provinces of the country. He served as chair of the Muslim Lawyers Club and vice-chair of the human rights committee of the Law Society of Thailand (now the Lawyers Council).
Five policemen were arrested in connection with Somchai’s disappearance, but the police force was allowed to investigate its own members. Consequently, the defendants were only charged with robbery and coercion, not with Somchai’s abduction, disappearance, and apparent murder. One police major was found guilty of coercion in January 2006 and sentenced to three years, though he was subsequently freed on bail. The other four defendants were acquitted due to lack of evidence. Government officials have pledged that a new inquiry will lead to murder charges early in 2006, but similar promises have been made in the past (for more on the investigation and trial read the Trial Report below).
The inquiry into the disappearance and apparent killing of the prominent lawyer and human rights defender, Somchai Neelaphaijit cannot be separated from problems endemic to the Thai legal system, and in particular to deteriorating human rights conditions in southern Thailand. A culture of impunity for violations by state officials, increasing insecurity for human rights defenders, escalating violence in the south involving state forces and the minority Muslim population, and a loosening of rights guarantees due to overly broad anti-terrorism decrees have all undermined the rule of law in Thailand.
Trial Monitoring Report: The Disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaijit (PDF-261KB)
This mission to Thailand was made possible by the generous contributions of the Dutch foundation Lawyers for Lawyers.