On 21 January 2011 at the Criminal Court on Ratchadaphisek Road in Bangkok, representatives of all parties involved in the criminal proceedings in the case of the 12 March 2004 forcible disappearance of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit gathered expecting to hear the verdict of the Appeal Court concerning the conviction of one out of the five accused. One Thai and one international observer from the Asian Human Rights Commission joined other observers from Thai nongovernmental organizations, international nongovernmental organizations, and several embassies who monitored the hearing.
However the verdict was not read, because the first defendant who was found guilty of a crime in the court of first instance, Police Major Ngern Thongsuk, was not present in person, and the Criminal Procedure Code (article 182, paragraph 3) stipulates that defendants in criminal cases must either be present, or that a series of steps must be undertaken to confirm that they have been properly notified.
This is the second time that Angkhana Neelaphaijit and her family have appeared at the Criminal Court to hear the verdict, and then had to leave without hearing it due to a malfunctioning of legal process. At the first scheduled reading of the verdict on 24 September 2010, the Criminal Court postponed the reading and sent the verdict back to the Appeal Court because Pol. Maj. Ngern's lawyer submitted a motion to remove his name from the case.
Ngern has been allegedly missing following a mudslide in 2008 and his family submitted a motion to the Prathumthani Provincial Court to have him officially declared a missing person in mid-September 2010. On 19 October 2010, the Appeal Court ruled that the verdict could be read without delay, as the Prathumthani court had not yet made a ruling regarding the status of Ngern.
Following this ruling, as the Criminal Court sent warrants requesting that all parties appear on 21 January 2011 for the reading of the verdict, the verdict should have been read. However, at the hearing the court officer reported that the warrant sent to Ngern Thongsuk was not delivered. The warrant was sent by registered mail, which means that a post officer takes it to the house of the addressee and gets a card signed to say that the warrant has been delivered, which is returned to the court. If there is nobody at the address, the post officer leaves a notice to request the addressee to go to the post office and collect a registered item. The court officer noted that when the warrant was sent for the initial hearing when the verdict was to be read in September 2010, the warrant was sent using the same method and it was picked up at the post office without a problem; however, this time nobody signed for the warrant.
Since Ngern was not present and the warrant was not picked up, the reading of the verdict would be illegal and it was therefore not read on 21 January 2011. At the hearing, the judges ruled that the court would send the warrant to the first defendant by announcement on the Criminal Court notice board. According to procedure, the announcement has to be posted for 15 days before the next reading day. The reading of the verdict from the Appeal Court has now been set for next week, on Monday, 7 February 2011, at 9am, again at the Criminal Court in Bangkok. The AHRC will again be sending local and foreign observers to attend the courtroom, including a member of staff from its office in Hong Kong, who will come to Bangkok especially for this purpose.
Yet if Ngern Thongsuk does not appear at the Criminal Court on the newly appointed date, the verdict still cannot be read. At that time, and in that event, the Criminal Court would need to issue an arrest warrant for Ngern and wait one month before setting another date for the reading of the verdict. Although that would be the ordinary process, the court may in this instance choose not to issue an arrest warrant for Ngern, as his missing person case is currently pending, with the next hearing set for 14 February 2011 in the Prathumthani Provincial Court. If he is ruled to be a missing person, then his family can again submit a request to the Criminal Court that he be removed as a defendant from the case. The end result could be that the reading of the verdict will be further delayed long into 2011, and perhaps even beyond.
On 14 December 2010 the AHRC issued a statement on the constant delays in the appeal case of Somchai, on which it has been working for the close to seven years since his abduction. In the statement, the AHRC said that, "Close observers of Somchai's case are concerned that the reading of the verdict will be postponed indefinitely… Any further delay in reading the appeal verdict in the case of Somchai Neelaphaijit must be interpreted not as the consequence of slow-moving wheels of justice but of deliberate attempts to extinguish any hopes of justice ever emerging from the so-called justice system at all."
Although the procedural technicalities that keep forcing postponements in the reading of the verdict can individually be waved aside as the inevitable details of judicial process and nothing to do with the particulars of the case, seen in context it is clear that they are part of a process not to delay justice, but to sabotage it. The unavoidable conclusion is indeed that they are part of a concerted strategy by powerful persons in and behind the scenes to demonstrate once and for all that it is not only pointless but also dangerous and impertinent to demand justice for gross abuses of human rights by the police and other security officials in Thailand.
It is for this very reason that the Asian Human Rights Commission again urges all concerned persons and organisations to attend the upcoming ruling on February 7 and make it known to the court that no matter what is done to sabotage the case, Somchai Neelaphaijit will not be forgotten, and nor will the injustices heaped upon the indignities done to him and his family by the institutions that in Thailand purport to deliver justice but manifestly do the opposite. Whatever may be done in the courts, we shall continue to demand, "Where is Somchai?"
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.