Thailand’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a lower court’s acquittal of five police officers on charges related to the disappearance in Bangkok of a lawyer from the restive Deep South region 11 years ago.
The evidence presented in the case of the March 2004 disappearance of attorney Somchai Neelapaijit was not credible enough to convict the five defendants, the supreme court ruled.
“I felt [it was] unjust,” Angkhana Neelapaijit, Somchai’s wife told BenarNews after the ruling, criticizing police for submitting “weak evidence to the courts.”
“As a relative of the victim, we felt hopeless in the Thai judiciary,” she said.
In June 2004, a criminal court indicted the five men, who worked for Royal Thai Police’s crime suppression division, on charges of robbing and assaulting the lawyer, instead of kidnapping him.
One defendant was sentenced in 2006. Police Maj. Ngern Thongsuk later disappeared in a stream in Pitsanuloke province while out on bail, according to relatives who filed a formal police report.
In March 2011, an appeals court acquitted all five defendants, including Ngern, citing unreliable and conflicting testimony from witnesses.
The chief evidence that the Supreme Court considered on Tuesday were records of 75 mobile phone calls made between police officers from the morning till the evening of March 12, 2004, the day Somchai vanished.
The callers were alleged to have coordinated efforts to stalk and kidnap Somchai.
“The evidence was not credible. Even with the logs showing 75 phone calls, the plaintiffs cannot confirm there was a stalking. It is unfounded claim,” the verdict stated.
“The forensics on lawyer Somchai’s car showed no palm prints, hair or blood trace (of suspects), the court is in disagreement with the plaintiffs and upholds the appeal court ruling,” the judges found.
Last seen on Bangkok street
A former chairman of the Muslim Attorney Center Foundation, Somchai had been handling a lawsuit against police on behalf of five Muslim suspects in a criminal case that originated in the predominantly Muslim Deep South in 2004.
Those suspects were charged with secession, treason and looting a military barracks in Narathiwat province in January 2004. The incident was a turning point in a decades-long insurgency by southern separatists in which more than 6,000 people have been killed since 2004.
Somchai’s clients claimed that interrogators had tortured them to confess while they were in police custody in Bangkok.
Somchai was last seen on Ramkhamhaeng Road on the evening of March 12, 2004, and is presumed dead. His body was never found.
Witnesses said they saw two cars on a street side and spotted four to five men forcing a man, who screamed for help, into one of the vehicles before they drove off. Somchai’s car was left at a bus terminal in Bangkok.
Long quest for justice
Angkhana, who has sought justice for more than 11 years, believes her husband was kidnapped and murdered.
She and her four daughters helped push for an appeal of the acquittal, but this was dismissed by the appellate court, and later by the supreme court. The courts ruled that the plaintiffs had no proof that Somchai was injured or dead, and could not act on his own to lodge an appeal.
“I feel sorry and disappointed. I didn’t think the court did not consider the obvious facts,” Angkhana told reporters. “We didn’t have a medical certificate or death certificate to show the court, but it is an obvious fact.”
Sam Zarifi, director of the Asia-Pacific section of the International Commission of Jurists, who was in the courtroom on Tuesday, backed Angkhana’s argument.
“Several Thai prime ministers and Thai officials have already said … they believed that Somchai Neelapaijit was murdered,” he said.
Angkhana, who recently joined the National Human Rights Commission, said the case of Somchai, among others, was an example of an enforced disappearance.
In March, she sought a separate investigation by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) but it has made little or no progress in the case, she said.
“The DSI is taking care of the case, but it focuses too much on trying to find the body and it cannot find it. The DSI should investigate the case as a murder case,” she told BenarNews.