This month marks seven years since the disappearance of prominent Thai Muslim lawyer and human rights activist Somchai Neelapaichit. At an event commemorating his disappearance held earlier this week in Bangkok, international NGOs, civil society organisations and justice groups continue to maintain that Khun Somchai was the victim of an enforced disappearance perpetrated by state officials.

In March 2004, at the time of his disappearance, Somchai was representing clients in Thailand’s south who alleged torture by police officers while in their custody.

“The crime of enforced disappearance is unlike any other,” said Sheila Varadon, international legal adviser with International Committee of Jurists (ICJ) in the Asia-Pacific. “Deprivation of liberty is done with the direct or indirect involvement of the state… The state may have authorised it, or they may have acquiesced to it. Perhaps the most definitive element of enforced disappearance is the concealment of the fate and the whereabouts of the victim. There is a deliberate act on the state or by persons to remove that person outside of the legal process… (Thus) ‘disappearing’ the person, physically and legally.”

Some 57 cases of enforced disappearance have been submitted to the Thai Government by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) over the past two decades. In a submission to the UN last month, the Justice for Peace Foundation cited more than 90 known cases of enforced disappearances since 1991, claiming that it is most often used as an extralegal method to curtail political dissent. The Justice for Peace Foundation also argues that most cases go unreported.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, Somchai’s wife, is the President of the Justice for Peace Foundation. Having “lived with (Somchai) for more than twenty years,” she believes “the reason he was ‘disappeared’ is to do with his work on the torture of his five clients. He never had a problem with police personally.”

Thai law does not recognise a separate criminal offense for enforced disappearance, nor typically can individuals be charged with murder should the remains of the victim not be found. In June 2004, five police officers were charged with both robbery and coercion in connection with Somchai’s disappearance. In January 2006 the Criminal Court found that one of the officers, Pol. Major Ngern Tongsuk, was guilty of coercion. In September 2008, police announced that Pol. Maj. Ngern Thongsuk had gone missing in a landslide. His body was never recovered.

Earlier this month, the Court of Appeal issued a judgement that overturned the conviction against Pol. Maj. Ngern Thongsuk, despite his absence, that held him criminally responsible for Somchai’s abduction. The Court also removed Angkhana and her family as injured parties from the case, thus removing their right to act on Somchai’s behalf, as admissible evidence could not establish whether Somchai had been killed or incapacitated at the time the motion was granted.

On 12 January 2006, then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra made a public statement acknowledging the death of Somchai Neelapaichit. Angkhana Neelapaijit has reason to believe his body was burned and disposed of in the Mae Klong River. His body has never been recovered.