Court upholds acquittals in missing lawyer Somchai case

Court upholds acquittals in missing lawyer Somchai case

Angkhana Neelapaijit holds a picture of her missing husband, Somchai, on the 11th anniversary of his disappearance from Ramkhamhaeng Soi 69, where he was last seen on March 12, 2004. (Photo by Somchai Poomlard)
Angkhana Neelapaijit holds a picture of her missing husband, Somchai, on the 11th anniversary of his disappearance from Ramkhamhaeng Soi 69, where he was last seen on March 12, 2004. (Photo by Somchai Poomlard)

The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the appellate court's acquittal of all five police officers charged with the robbery and coercion of "disappeared" human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit 11 years ago.

The Supreme Court also ruled that Mr Somchai's family could not act as a co-plaintiff in bringing a case as there was no actual evidence that he was dead or seriously injured.

Mr Somchai was abducted on the night of March 12, 2004, when he was representing alleged Muslim southern insurgents who claimed to have been tortured by police. Witnesses reported seeing five police officers bundling him into a car on Ramkhamhaeng Road, in Bangkok.

He was never seen again.

His wife Angkhana Neelapaijit, now a human rights commissioner, said earlier the ruling would affect the cases of other victims of enforced disappearance. After hearing the ruling on Tuesday, she expressed her sorrow and concern about the victims in other cases.

Mrs Angkhana and her second daughter were at the Criminal Court on Tuesday for the reading of the judgement, but refused to sign their names to acknowledge the ruling at the end of the hour-long delivery.

"I'm very disappointed," said Mrs Angkhana, 59. She thought the parties involved should have listened to the factual situation, that her husband had been injured and was presumed dead.

The five defendants were Pol Maj Ngern Thongsuk, a former inspector attached to the Crime Suppression Division (CSD), Pol Lt Col Sinchai Nimpunyakampong, 46, a former CSD interrogator, Pol Sgt Maj Chaiyaweng Phaduang, 44, a former tourist police officer, Pol Sgt Randorn Sitthikhet, 42, a former general administration officer of the CSD, and Pol Lt Col Chadchai Liamsa-nguan, 49, a former CSD officer whose name later changed to Napanwuth.

Public prosecutors, together with Mrs Angkhana and her four children, filed the lawsuit on June 16, 2004. They accused the five of robbing Mr Somchai of his car, wristwatch, pen and mobile phone, together worth 903,460 baht, on March 12, 2004. Mr Somchai was then 53 years old.

The defendants were accused of assaulting and forcing Mr Somchai into their vehicle. On March 16, 2004, police investigators impounded Mr Somchai's car. The five accused officers surrendered in April of the same year and denied all charges.

On March 12, 2006, the Criminal Court sentenced Pol Maj Ngern to three years in prison for coercion. The robbery charge was dismissed because Mr Somchai's car was later found at the Mor Chit 2 bus terminal in Chatuchak district of Bangkok, and it was understood that the defendants were not intent on robbing him. There was also no proof that Mr Somchai's belongings had been stolen.

The Criminal Court acquitted the other four police officers.

Public prosecutors, Mr Somchai's family and Pol Maj Ngern appealed. The Appeals Court's ruling was announced on March 11, 2011. It acquitted all defendants, deeming the testimonies of prosecution witnesses confusing relating to the identification of the defendants.

The Appeals Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Pol Maj Ngern, who failed to turn up for the ruling, and confiscated his bail of 1.5 million baht. The Appeals Court dismissed the request of Mr Somchai's family to be a co-plaintiff because there was no evidence that Mr Somchai was dead.

During the process of the prosecution and the family filing their appeal to the Supreme Court, the Pathum Thani provincial court on May 17, 2012, declared Pol Maj Ngern a missing person, after his lawyer and family submitted that he had drowned and disappeared in a landslide near Khwae Noi dam in Phitsanulok province on Sept 19, 2008.

During the Supreme Court hearings, the public prosecution stated that Mr Somchai, a Muslim lawyer, had represented five Muslim suspects charged with the robbery of firearms and violence in the South in 2004.

The suspects told the lawyer that after being taken to the CSD in Bangkok they were beaten and forced to confess to the armed robbery of firearms from the 4th Development Battalion in Narathiwat's Cho Airong district on Jan 4, 2004. The attack marked the renewal of separatist violence in the far South.

Mr Somchai had filed a complaint about the alleged assault, but the Supreme Court found the five police officers had not met Mr Somchai and not known that Mr Somchai was the real complainant in the case, because Mr Somchai had not signed the complaint.

The Supreme Court also found that five eyewitnesses gave confusing and questionable testimony on the identification of the kidnappers and the levels of light at the time on Ramkhamhaeng Road, where Mr Somchai had last been seen.

The Supreme Court also dismissed copies of documents listing as many as 75 mobile phone calls between the five defendants from 7am to 9pm on March 12, 2004, the day of the disappearance. The court stated that no one had certified the copies.

Pol Maj Ngern remains a missing person, but the other four defendants were present at the Criminal Court to hear the Supreme Court's ruling on Tuesday. They did not speak to reporters.

Mrs Angkhana said the eyewitnesses had been intimidated and had not been placed in the witness protection programme.

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