Setback for rights advocates in Thailand | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.03.2011
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Setback for rights advocates in Thailand

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says his government is to press ahead with investigations into the disappearance of Muslim human rights lawyer, Somchai Neelapaichit, despite the case facing legal setbacks.

A Thai-Muslim woman activist holds photo of missing Thai lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit

A Thai-Muslim woman activist holds photo of missing Thai lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit

In 2004, Somchai Neelapaichit, Thai Muslim human rights lawyer, told a public forum he had been accused by people and police of being a "bad lawyer," by representing clients accused of destroying the country. But Somchai stood by his clients.

Thailand had witnessed an escalation in attacks by Southern Muslim separatists in early 2004. Police had made sweeps of arrests to curb the rising tide of violence. In his comments, Somchai had also accused police of torture.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says the government is taking the case seriously

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says the government is taking the case seriously

Within days Somchai was abducted. Eyewitnesses told how five men had bundled the 44 year old lawyer into a vehicle in Bangkok; his pleas for help ignored. His body has not since been recovered.

Defending unpopular causes

Roger Normand, Asia Pacific director for the International Commission of Jurists, says Somchai’s case is symbolic of activists abducted never to be seen again. "The fact that this can happen to someone like Somchai means it can happen to anyone in the legal community who defends unpopular causes. And if it’s not possible to get justice in the Thai legal system and people look at this case, is it possible? Personally, I think it is highly likely that security forces and the police were involved."

Five police officers had been arrested over Somchai’s disappearance. Four were acquitted. One police major had been found guilty of abduction and sentenced to three years jail. He had been released on bail pending an appeal. Then he disappeared. His family say he had been swept away in a drowning accident. A recent appeals court reviewed the case and found the police major not guilty.

A test of Thai human rights record

Somchai’s wife, Angkhana Neelapaichit, a rights advocate, has sustained a campaign in a bid to find her husband and have those guilty brought to justice. Civic groups say Somchai’s case is a test of Thailand’s human rights record.

A violent political crisis paralyzed the Thai capital when the Redshirts demanded change

Thai Redshirts demanded change

Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, this week told foreign correspondents the government is still working on Somchai’s case: "I can assure you I do take her complaints and case seriously and am doing all I can to get all the agencies to make sure these problems are addressed. We’re still asking the police and all the agencies to continue. I’m in constant touch with Khun Angkhana to let her know of any progress and she will let me know of any problems she was facing."

But Mrs Neelapaichit is less certain. She is losing confidence in the government and the Department of Special Investigation or DSI. She says, '"The Prime Minister always said he’s very concerned about this case and other cases of human rights abuse......but the outcome is another thing. So I don’t know if the government – especially the Prime Minister or the Minister of Justice or the DSI think that the case of Somchai is a serious case or not. It seems the state officer can do no wrong, protecting the officers although they are the perpetrators."

Mrs. Neelapaichi is pressing her fight to the Supreme Court. The Department of Special Investigation is also treating Somchai’s case as one of murder, the killing of a man who believed in the people’s defence of their legal rights.

Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Sarah Berning

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