Protestors placing flowers in front of a photo of Wanchalearm at the Pathumwan Skywalk demonstration on 5 June 2020

2 years on, abducted activist still missing, advocates and relative prosecuted

As the fate remains unknown of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, an activist in self-imposed exile in Cambodia who was abducted in 2020, his sister and activists campaigning for justice in his case moved closer to being jailed after the latest court ruling in favour of strict enforcement of the Emergency Decree to control Covid-19.

In white T-shirts, from left to right: Jutatip Sirikhan, Panussaya Sitthijirawattanakul, and Parit Chiwarak in a protest at Pathumwan Skywalk. (Source: Thai Lawyers for Human Rights)

On 12 July, Parit Chiwarak and Jutatip Sirikhan, activists who publicly addressed the abduction of Wanchalearm Satsaksit on 5 June 2020, one day after the incident, were found guilty of violating the Emergency Decree. They were fined 10,000 baht each and sentenced to 2 months in jail suspended for two years.

The Pathumwan District Court found that the two, despite not clearly being the ringleaders of the gathering, nevertheless appeared at the gathering on Pathumwan intersection skywalk, and gave speeches with prepared banners and photos that matched the invitation to the gathering in a Student Union of Thailand Facebook post. Hence it may be understood that the two were accomplices.

The fact that the two delivered speeches without using sound amplifiers caused people who attended the event to gather closely, increasing the risk of Covid-19 infection. There were no daily infections at the time, but cumulative cases had already reached 3,082.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the Pathumwan District Court ruling is the first time that a jail sentence has been given for an Emergency Decree violation in a political gathering case. Since March 2020, two other cases were penalized with a fine while another 16 have been dismissed.

The court verdict started with legitimising the necessity of the Emergency Decree and five additional public gathering bans issued by Gen Pornpipat Benyasri, Chief of Defence Forces at that time, which were made in line with the global context where Covid-19 was spreading widely, causing at that time over 50 deaths and thousands of cases in Thailand.

The orders not only banned public gatherings, but also closed venues where people came together such as shopping malls and restaurants. Hence, the defendant's testimony, claiming that they had to gather at such a time, means that they aimed to have the law be enforced on them differently from others who may actually have more need to go outside than them, such as for work.

The defendants also acknowledged the Covid-19 infection, as seen from them wearing face masks and having sanitizing alcohol gel and temperature scanners prepared. The fact that there were zero daily infection rates meant the Emergency Decree and other provisions were effective.

Considering the necessity and effectiveness of the orders, the restrictions on the constitutional rights and freedoms of the defendants are understandable and in line with the rule of law. Since the orders were righteous, the Court had no need to consider whether the gathering was crowded or peaceful or not to justify exemption from the penalty.

Jutatip’s offence of not cooperating with the police in refusing to have her fingerprints taken for police records cost her another 2,000 baht fine.

TLHR mentioned that this court ruling differed from the previous cases in Phayao and Lop Buri courts, which found that the subsidiary orders from either the Chief of Defence Forces or other designated officials to oversee public gatherings in crowded spaces, did not allow these officials to add by themselves the criminal offence of ‘staging a protest that may risk infection’.

Cost of pursuing the truth

Wanchalearm, a former civil society worker and staff member of the Pheu Thai Party’s Bangkok gubernatorial election campaign team in 2013, went into self-exile three days after the coup in 2014. He flew out of Thailand, narrowly escaping military arrest.

On 4 June 2020, Wanchalearm, who had been living under the alias of Sok Heng, was forcibly disappeared. His friends, family, the United Nations and human rights groups allege that he was abducted by a group of armed men that afternoon while buying food on the street outside the Mekong Gardens apartment building.

Wanchalearm’s sister Sitanun Satsaksit says she was on the phone with him during the alleged abduction and that she heard him say “I can’t breathe” before the line went dead.

What happened to Wanchalearm?

Wanchalearm is one of 9 political refugees who have been abducted while living in self-exile in neighbouring countries, 2 of whom have been confirmed dead as their bodies were found floating in the Mekong river.

Sitanun drops a letter of inquiry at the Cambodian Embassy's feedback box as her request for entrance was denied on 2 June 2022.

Sitanun, who has been active in establishing her younger brother's whereabouts, has been subject to state surveillance and faces legal charges for attending protests in addition to have to fight bureaucratic inertia by Thai and Cambodian authorities who are nowhere close to establishing the facts of the case.

As of 13 July, Sitanun has been charged with 2 violations of the Emergency Decree for her attendance at two protests on 5 September and 10 December 2021, where she gave speeches about Wanchalearm’s disappearance. She has a court hearing scheduled for late August 2022 and faces up to four years’ imprisonment if found guilty.

In April 2022, Sitanun’s name was included on a police special surveillance ‘red level’ watchlist along with another activist.

Regarding her attempts to find Wanchalearm through official channels, Wanchalearm’s case is under investigation by the Cambodian police as a result of a Phnom Penh Court ruling. His relatives have still not received any significant updates about the investigation. 

Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General issued a letter on 19 May 2021 asking for an update from the Cambodian National Police Headquarters and Phnom Penh Court via Thailand’s Department of Consular Affairs.

A response was received on 24 February 2022 that further testimony in the case was being acquired. The outcome of the process was reportedly secret and further information could not be immediately provided but the Thai Embassy in Cambodia was to be given further updates.

Thailand Department of Special Investigations (DSI) issued a statement on 1 March 2022, saying that it had accepted Wanchalearm’s case for investigation, listed as case number 13/2564. The DSI also reported that it had received documents and requested additional information from relevant Thai and Cambodian authorities.

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