Somchai was a prominent Thai Muslim lawyer and human rights defender known for his success over two decades of defending clients accused of offences relating to national security, terrorism, and insurgency in the troubled southern provinces of Thailand.
Somchai, also known by his Muslim name Abu Bakar, was born in 1951 in the Nongjork District on the eastern edge of Bangkok. He graduated from Ramkhamhaeng University in 1976 with a law degree.
Over two decades, Somchai defended clients accused of offences relating to national security, terrorism, and insurgency in the troubled southern provinces of Thailand. He promoted the rule of law and justice and criticised state officials for excessive and unnecessary violence in law enforcement. This placed him in constant conflict and tension with the security forces in the southern Thai provinces. Most notably, Somchai obtained 50 000 signatures from around Thailand to support an end to martial law in southern Thailand, founded the Muslim Lawyers Club with the aim of providing free legal aid and advocacy for the poor and was the Vice-Chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Law Society of Thailand (now the Lawyers Council).
Somchai disappeared on March 12, 2004. He was last seen near the Chaleena Hotel in the Ramkamhaeng area of Bangkok. His car was later found abandoned with a fresh dent in the back, suggesting it had been rammed from behind. Human rights organisations in Thailand believe that Somchai’s disappearance was closely connected to his persistent and high profile work defending human rights. At the time of his disappearance, Somchai was representing clients from southern Thailand’s minority Muslim community accused of involvement in clashes with police.
Investigation and Trial
In April 2004, five police officers were arrested in connection with Somchai’s disappearance the previous month. However, the defendants were charged only with robbery and coercion, rather than with Somchai’s abduction, disappearance, and apparent murder. On January 12, 2006, the court found one defendant guilty of coercion and sentenced him to three years imprisonment, though he was subsequently freed on bail. The other four defendants were acquitted on all charge due to lack of evidence. Of concern, the trial of the five policemen did not meet international standards. In particular, the charges laid did not rise to the seriousness of the crime, there was inadequate witness protection, and the rules of evidence interfered with the effective cross examination of witnesses and defendants.
‘Somchai did not attempt to make guilty people innocent. But he endeavoured to ensure that all people accused of a crime had the opportunity to have a real examination in court. He wanted all accused people to be served justice’
(Angkhana Wongrachen, wife of Somchai)
Amnesty International – Worldwide Appeal
Diplomacy Training Program - making a difference
Asian Human Rights Commission - Somchai Neelaphaijit homepage
Human Rights First – Human Rights Defenders Cases
International Federation of Human Rights: A Report on the Somchai abduction trial
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