Missing activist’s family, rights groups petition UN to address investigation failure

Sitanun Satsaksit, sister of missing activist in exile Wanchalearm Satsaksit, submitted to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) on Monday (4 April) a statement calling for the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) to address Cambodia’s failure to investigate Wanchalearm’s disappearance.

Sitanun Satsaksit

The statement, signed by the Satsaksit family and 39 civil society organizations, expressed concerns that the Cambodian authorities is not conducting a “thorough, independent, transparent, and effective” investigation into Wanchalearm’s disappearance and calls on the UN CED to address Cambodia’s failure to determine Wanchalearm’s fate and whereabouts during its current session, during which it will be conducting a preliminary review of the enforced disappearance situation in Cambodia.

The statement notes that the CED has previously expressed its concern over the Cambodian authorities’ failure to investigate enforced disappearances. It then notes that Cambodian officials tried to dismiss the case, saying that it is not true or that the government would not investigate Wanchalearm’s disappearance because there was no formal complaint, and denied that Wanchalearm was in Cambodia at the time.

“Failure to effectively investigate his abduction calls into question the authorities’ compliance with Cambodia’s obligations under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), to which Cambodia became a state party in 2013. Specifically, Cambodia is in violation of its duties under international human rights law to undertake a thorough and impartial investigation without delay, take necessary measures to hold those involved criminally responsible, and guarantee access to information to the families of the victims and those with a legitimate interest,” said the statement. 

“In addition, unconscionable delays in the search for a disappeared person are inconsistent with the Guiding Principles for the search for disappeared persons, including to presume the person is alive, respect human dignity, begin without delay, use information in an appropriate manner, and respect that the search is a continuing obligation until the fate of the disappeared is known.”

Sitanun, along with her lawyer, Montana Duangprapa, and Kanya Theerawut, mother of activist Siam Theerawut, who went missing in May 2019 after he was reportedly arrested in Vietnam and extradited to Bangkok, also met with an UNOHCHR representative. According to the Cross-Cultural Foundation, they asked UNOHCHR to follow up with the Thai authorities on the investigations into the disappearances of Wanchalearm and Siam.

They also asked UNOHCHR to pay attention to the charges filed against citizens for political expression, such as the charges against Sitanun, and to send letters to relevant agencies, such as the police, the public prosecutor, and the court, or to send representatives to observe trials. They also asked that UNOHCHR pay attention to cases of harassment against members of Siam’s family, such as when his mother was visited by plainclothes police from Samut Sakhon, as well as to the parliamentary process of passing the anti-torture and enforced disappearance bill.

They also wanted to follow up on the process of adding Wanchalearm and Siam to list of victims of enforced disappearance of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID).

Wanchalearm went missing on 4 June 2020, while living in exile in Cambodia. No progress has so far been made in the investigation into his disappearance. Previously, in December 2021, Sitanun sent a letter to three Thai government agencies asking for updates on the investigation. Only one has replied so far: the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), who said that it is currently waiting for information from relevant agencies and that no other progress has been made.

In Cambodia, Wanchalearm’s disappearance is being investigated by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Montana said that the court has yet to notify them of the result of the investigation.

Sitanun is currently facing 2 charges of violating the Emergency Decree for speaking about her brother’s disappearance at a protest in September 2021 and for joining a group of other activists to submit a petition on human rights violations in Thailand to UN representatives in Thailand.

She said that she is glad that international organizations still pay attention to Wanchalearm’s disappearance, while the Thai and Cambodian authorities still fail to investigate the case, noting that within the first few days after Wanchalearm went missing, a high-ranking Cambodian official said that his disappearance was “fake news” while the Thai authorities refused any knowledge.

“I gave every important piece of evidence that we can use to continue the investigation to the Cambodian court and the Thai authorities. Now that I can’t rely on the government, I have to rely on the UN’s mechanism to seek justice,” Sitanun said.

Sitanun also went to the Ministry of Justice on Tuesday (5 April) to submit a complaint to the Ministry, calling for the authorities to provide the family with information on the progress of the case and to conduct an effective investigation into Wanchalearm’s whereabouts.

Joint Statement

Wanchalearm Satsaksit remains missing as UN body begins review of enforced disappearances in Cambodia

4 April 2022 – We, the undersigned organisations, remain deeply concerned about Cambodia’s failure to conduct a thorough, independent, transparent, and effective investigation into the suspected enforced disappearance of Thai activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit and the resulting impunity. As the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) prepares for a preliminary review of the situation of enforced disappearances in Cambodia on 5 April 2022, we call on the CED to address Cambodia’s persistent failure to conduct a prompt and thorough search for Wanchalearm to determine his fate and whereabouts or to  effectively and transparently investigate his disappearance.

We stand in solidarity with Wanchalearm and his family and all victims of enforced disappearance, and call on Cambodia to address apparent failures of the investigating to date, and to immediately disclose any information they may have about his fate and whereabouts, and to ensure truth, justice and reparations for his family”.  We agree with the CED that “the very nature of enforced disappearance [is] a continuous crime” which presents grave risks to the rights to life, liberty, security of person, freedom from secret detention and torture, as well as the right to family life. Families of those disappeared have faced incalculable suffering, while being deprived of the right to obtain redress and have closure.

The CED has previously expressed concern over Cambodian authorities’ failure to define and conduct thorough, impartial, and independent searches and investigations into reported enforced disappearances, a pattern that continued with Wanchalearm’s case. In June 2020, Wanchalearm was abducted in broad daylight outside his apartment building while living in exile in Phnom Penh. Wanchalearm is an outspoken critic of the Thai government and the subject of criminal charges in Thailand. His abduction was captured on CCTV footage, which includes images of the vehicle used and its license plate, as well as by eyewitnesses. Wanchalearm’s sister, Sitanan Satsaksit, also overheard part of the abduction as she was on the phone with him at the time. General Chhay Kim Khouen, spokesman of the National Police, and Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, initially dismissed the abduction as “fake news” while another official implied that the government would not investigate the matter because there was no formal complaint.

Authorities later denied Wanchalearm had been in Cambodia at the time despite clear evidence and instead focused on issues irrelevant to determining his fate and whereabouts such as whether he had proper immigration documentation. Amid widespread international condemnation, and only after Sitanan Satsaksit filed a formal complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on 8 July 2020, Cambodian authorities finally opened a criminal investigation in September 2020. Despite Sitanan giving testimony and evidence to a Phnom Penh court in December 2020 and early 2021, there have been no leads in the investigation. Subsequent appeals for information on his disappearance and the progress of the investigation from Wanchalearm’s family have been met with silence. In Thailand, Thai authorities have twice threatened Sitanan with criminal charges after she spoke at events in September and December 2021 about her brother’s disappearance and the need to enact Thailand’s draft law on the prevention and suppression of torture and enforced disappearances.

Wanchalearm’s disappearance is a chilling reminder of the 2007 cross-border disappearances of two Vietnamese pro-democracy and labour activists from Cambodia. For example, Le Tri Tue, a Vietnamese dissident, disappeared in Phnom Penh in 2007 after applying for asylum and remains missing.

Failure to effectively investigate his abduction calls into question the authorities’ compliance with Cambodia’s obligations under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), to which Cambodia became a state party in 2013. Specifically, Cambodia is in violation of its duties under international human rights law to undertake a thorough and impartial investigation without delay, take necessary measures to hold those involved criminally responsible, and guarantee access to information to the families of the victims and those with a legitimate interest. In addition, unconscionable delays in the search for a disappeared person are inconsistent with the Guiding Principles for the search for disappeared persons, including to presume the person is alive, respect human dignity, begin without delay, use information in an appropriate manner, and respect that the search is a continuing obligation until the fate of the disappeared is known.

The CED opened its 22nd session on 28 March and will develop a List of Issues that will form the basis for the review of Cambodia’s first report under Article 29 of the ICPPED. This report was due in 2015 but was not submitted by the Cambodian government until 2021.

This joint statement is endorsed by:

  1. Sitanan Satsaksit and Family
  2. Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA), Cambodia
  3. Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh
  4. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
  5. Asian Resource Foundation (ARF), Thailand
  6. Association of Women for Awareness & Motivation (AWAM), Pakistan
  7. Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), India
  8. Bytes for All, Pakistan
  9. Cambodian Institute for Democracy (CID), Cambodia
  10. Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), Cambodia
  11. Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), Cambodia
  12. Center for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), Mongolia
  13. Center for Prisoners’ Rights (CPR), Japan
  14. Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community Association (CCFC), Cambodia
  15. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), India
  16. Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF), Thailand
  17. Defence of Human Rights (DHR), Pakistan
  18. Dignity-Kadyr-kassiyet (KK), Kazakhstan
  19. Equitable Cambodia (EC), Cambodia
  20. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan
  21. Human Rights Lawyers Association (HRLA), Thailand
  22. Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), Cambodia
  23. The Indonesian Human Rights Monitor – Inisiatif Masyarakat Partisipatif untuk Transisi Berkeadilan (Imparsial), Indonesia
  24. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  25. Korean House for International Solidarity (KHIS), South Korea
  26. League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI), Iran
  27. Madaripur Legal Aid Association (MLAA), Bangladesh
  28. Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), Maldives
  29. Manushya Foundation, Thailand
  30. Odhikar, Bangladesh
  31. People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF), Thailand
  32. People’s Watch, India
  33. Programme Against Custodial Torture & Impunity (PACTI), India
  34. Progressive Voice, Myanmar
  35. Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization (SRMO), Afghanistan
  36. Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), Cambodia
  37. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), Malaysia
  38. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), Thailand
  39. Think Centre, Singapore
  40. Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), Vietnam

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