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Court of Appeal Overturns Conviction in Somchai Disappearance Case

On 11 March 2011, one day before the seventh anniversary of the enforced disappearance and presumed murder of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, the Court of Appeal issued a judgment (i) overturning the conviction of Pol. Maj. Ngern Thongsuk due to insufficient evidence and (ii) denying the right of Angkhana Neelapaijit and her daughters to appeal the case to the Supreme Court as co-plaintiffs.
 
The Court of Appeal’s ruling absolves the police and the State of any criminal responsibility in this high profile case. Moreover, Angkhana and Pratubjit Neelapaijit—having spent seven years at great personal cost pursuing justice through the courts—are no longer considered “injured parties” under Thai law and therefore have no right to launch a final appeal for justice to the highest court in the land.
 
Khun Somchai was known throughout Thailand as a courageous champion of human rights who accepted controversial cases that few other lawyers dared to take up. His clients were often poor people charged with security-related offenses in Thailand’s southern border provinces. 
 
The enforced disappearance of Khun Somchai shocked the nation. Since then, successive governments and political leaders, including Prime Minister Abhisit, have publicly promised a speedy and effective criminal trial process to bring the perpetrators to justice.
 
However, after seven years of legal investigation and courtroom proceedings, the Neelapaijit family, and the Thai general public, is no closer to knowing the truth about Somchai’s final fate. His murderers remain free and untroubled by the law. 
 
The ICJ has followed this trial closely from the outset, sending eminent international jurists to Thailand to observe key stages of the legal process. The ICJ has major concerns with the case, including:
 
·     Thai law does not recognize a separate criminal offense of enforced disappearance: because Somchai’s remains have never been located, the five accused police officers were charged only with the minor offences of coercion and robbery. 
·     The investigation, first by the police and later the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), was flawed and compromised. Crucial evidence has been mishandled or itself “disappeared”, including  the original records of the five accuseds’ mobile phone calls from the night of the enforced disappearance. According to Pol. Lt-Gen Thanee Somboonsup, the lead investigator, “this case was hard to solve mainly because evidence has been destroyed.”
·     The police officer convicted of coercion and sentenced to three years jail in the first trial, himself “disappeared” in a natural disaster two years ago.  Also, one of the main witnesses, one of Somchai’s clients who accused the police of torture, himself “disappeared” last year while officially in the DSI’s witness “protection” program. The DSI has not successfully investigated either of these “disappearances”.
·     The accused police officers never faced discipline for their alleged involvement and were allowed to continue working without any restrictions throughout the entire criminal process; the convicted police officer was on bail when his family reported him missing. Meanwhile, eyewitnesses (and the Neelapaijit family) have complained of facing pressure and threats as the case has dragged on. As a result, some testimonies have changed, providing grounds for the Court of Appeal to disregard their evidence as being inconsistent and not credible.
 
The international community is following the case closely as a bellwether of Thailand’s capacity to hold state officials responsible for serious human rights violations. The United Nations Working Group on Involuntary and Enforced Disappearances has accepted 57 cases from Thailand, of which 54 are still outstanding, including the Somchai case.
 
The ICJ calls upon the Royal Thai Government and all elements of the criminal justice system to ensure that justice is finally done in the Somchai case, and also urges the Government, in its position as President of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, to demonstrate commitment to human rights and rule of law by ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and enacting legislation to make enforced disappearance a serious crime in Thailand.

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