As a human-rights lawyer,Somchai Neelapaichit never shied away from tough cases. For over 20 years he successfully defended suspects,mostly fellow Muslims,against criminal charges that ranged from arson to treason. His work frequently took him to the restless,Muslim-dominated far south of Thailand,where for five years the army has been fighting a separatist insurgency. But he called Bangkok home.
On March 12th 2004 Mr Somchai himself became a victim of injustice. A group of men bundled him into a car in Bangkok,then drove away. Two days later,his wife,Angkhana Neelapaichit,filed a missing-person complaint,the first of scores of letters,appeals and petitions she would write in search of the truth about her husbands fate. My duty,she says,is to tell the story,again and again.
Five years on,Ms Angkhana is still waiting for answers. And,to add insult to injury,the security forces recently raided the office of her human-rights group,which compiles details of abuses in the south. An army spokesman claimed that they were looking for insurgents.
Mr Somchai is presumed dead. Of five police officers accused of involvement in the case,all but one were acquitted of theft (of Mr Somchai’s car) and coercion. The convicted officer was freed on appeal and recently declared to have vanished. That Thai law-enforcement officials had a hand in an unlawful abduction is,sadly,no great surprise. Two days before he vanished,Mr Somchai had formally accused the police of torturing five Muslim men in custody. The men were arrested after a raid on January 4th 2004 on an armoury in the south; that event marked the start of the insurgency,which has since killed over 3,500 people,mostly civilians.
Like his predecessors,Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party,who became prime minister last December,has promised justice and peace in the south. The number of violent incidents fell sharply last year after a military surge,but has risen again recently. The shadowy movement behind the shootings,bombings and gruesome beheadings keeps regenerating.
Critics say that although the free hand the army enjoys in the area seems to have been effective in dampening the violence,it is stoking the anger and alienation on which the insurgency feeds. Under emergency laws that Mr Abhisit extended in January,the 14th such extension since 2005,detainees can be held without trial.
Thailand’s counter-insurgency tactics allegedly include the torture of detainees. Mr Somchai accused the police of using techniques such as electrocution and simulated strangling. The same issue has also caused controversy over Thailand’s close ties with America. Back in 2003,Mr Somchai rushed to defend three southern Muslims detained on suspicion of plotting with Jemaah Islamiah,a regional affiliate of al-Qaeda. All were later acquitted.
The arrests came as the prime minister at the time,Thaksin Shinawatra,flew to Washington to pledge allegiance to President Bush’s war on terror. At the time,the two cold-war allies were busy with the CIA’s “rendition” programme,which reportedly entailed questioning foreigners in Thai military jails. The CIA has admitted that it destroyed 92 tapes held in Thailand of such interrogations-leading to accusations that it did so because of the abuses that took place. The Thai army denies hosting any CIA jails.
Pressed by Ms Angkhana,Mr Abhisit has promised progress on Mr Somchai’s case. Forensic experts are scouring a possible dumping-ground for bone fragments. Another line of inquiry might be to retrace the steps of the five accused policemen,whose trial was criticised by foreign observers as deeply flawed. Hair samples in the victim’s car were never compared with the defendants’. Nor were the suspects’ mobile-phone records thoroughly checked,though it is known that on the day of the abduction one call was placed to the offices of the prime minister,Mr Thaksin. Ms Angkhana says she wants to see Mr Thaksin,who has offered conflicting accounts of Mr Somchai’s fate,brought in to answer questions. That seems unlikely: he is already on the run from a conviction in Thailand for corruption.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009