Thailand under fire for deteriorating human rights record

It's been 15 months since Angkana Neelaphaijit's husband Somchai went missing, yet his black briefcase remains on a table by the front door of their two-storey home, its contents undisturbed.

The Thai Muslim human rights lawyer had packed his notes and plane ticket for a trip to southern Thailand to defend four Muslims accused of being Islamic militants. Somchai accused police of torturing his clients during interrogation.

But on the night before the journey - March 12 last year - witnesses claim they saw Somchai dragged away from his car in Bangkok by men later identified as Thai police.

Now, Ms Angkana clings to the faint hope that her husband will come home and life will return to normal. For now, it is anything but that: she has been receiving death threats since mid-April, when a coalition of rights groups, headed by Hong Kong's Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), presented a letter to the UN accusing the Thai government of lacking 'sincerity' in its efforts to find her husband.

'I have been warned over the phone to keep my mouth shut or else,' the soft-spoken mother of five says. 'A man also came by our house after the UN meeting and told me that he was concerned for my safety - that I may be in danger if I said anything about this case.'

After voicing her fears to the Thai press, a government spokesman contacted her. 'They told me that I would need 24-hour protection. I lost my privacy on April 22.'

The following week, Basil Fernando of Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), sister organisation to the ALRC, arrived in Thailand with the newly released country report, describing Thailand's erosion of human rights.

The report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Committee next month, reads: 'On paper, Thailand adheres to the rule of law; in practice it is still subjected to the rule of lords. Ancient authoritarian practices and thinking are still very much in place [and] the army is allowed to kill at random, the police permitted to torture at will.'

Citing the Somchai case, Mr Fernando told The Nation newspaper that 'something is very wrong with the [Thai judiciary] system'.

'It should worry anybody who is concerned with the rule of law,' he said. 'It was shocking and continues to remain a shock.'

Since the threats, Ms Neelaphaijit's family has been under 24-hour watch by heavily armed teams from the Department of Special Investigation, seated inside the front entrance of their home.

They accompany her everywhere. Ms Neelaphaijit marks the days when they are scheduled to leave later this month, saying the government is only concerned with its international appearance.

Things are grim. More than a year after Somchai's disappearance, the investigation has stalled and no information about the case has been disclosed. Despite the arrest of five officers who allegedly abducted Somchai, no one has been convicted. The suspects are free on bail, facing minor related criminal charges - including the theft of his car - which hardly befits the severity of kidnapping and suspected murder.

According to the AHRC report, part of the problem lies in the judicial system. It reads: 'The [Thai] penal code recognises only acts of kidnapping for ransom. Where the body of a disappeared person is never recovered, even if the alleged perpetrators are identified, there is no corresponding offence under which they can be charged.'

Now the UN has intervened with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) team. 'We remind the Thai authorities of the obligation that they have under the [UN] declaration against disappearances to find out what's happened to all of the disappeared, to get at the truth and to provide for compensation for families of victims if necessary,' said Stephen Toope, a law professor on leave from McGill University in Canada.

Mr Toope was chairman-rapporteur for a panel of five international representatives in Bangkok earlier this month for a regional meeting. With 40,000 cases filed from 60 countries their task is enormous, but the goal is straightforward - find out what has happened to the missing people.

It is essentially a humanitarian mission for the victims' families. However, Mr Toope is gravely concerned about the high level of fear that human rights workers in Thailand and neighbouring Asian countries voiced during the week-long meeting discussions. 'There is a responsibility on the part of government to protect human rights defenders,' he says.

Although the Somchai case is the first one from Thailand, Mr Toope suspects that the numbers could increase as non-government organisations become familiar with the process of filing the missing reports.

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has pledged to co-operate with the UN investigation, but his critics question his sincerity. The chairman of Thailand's Council of Muslim Organisations, Niti Hasan, describes the Somchai case as 'a clear human rights violation'.

'If you cannot right this matter, how can you get that UN post?' he asks, referring to Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai's bid to become the next secretary-general of the UN.

Mr Thaksin's relationship with human rights groups, the press and the UN has been controversial at times. 'We are not a colony. We are independent. We have to be proud of our independence. We have to treasure our country's dignity,' he said, in a familiar nationalistic tone, to the local press last week.

The ethnic unrest in Thailand's predominantly Muslim provinces of Naratiwat, Pattani and Yala has claimed more than 800 lives since the escalation of violence began in January last year. Human rights groups claim that up to 200 more have gone missing or fled to neighbouring Malaysia.

Amnesty International harshly criticised the government's handling of protesters in Tak Bai last October, when more than 80 died - most of them crushed in the back of trucks on the way to an army detention centre. In April last year, more than 100 were killed during clashes with security officials, which culminated in a siege at the historic Krue Se mosque in Pattani.

The WGEID has requested further assistance from the Thai government on the Tak Bai incident. Ironically, the four Thai Muslim men who Somchai was defending prior to his disappearance were acquitted last week for lack of evidence against them.

For now, the lawyer's wife is in a peculiar dilemma, protected around the clock - almost under house arrest - by the people she fears most. 'I feel shame in my heart,' she says. 'My husband could help so many people, but now my family cannot bring justice to his case. If anything happens to me, please continue to follow this case until justice is served.'