Ahead of the expected verdict on Thursday (28 September) for four people accused of involvement in the enforced disappearance and murder of Indigenous Karen human rights defender Pholachi ‘Billy’ Rakchongcharoen, Amnesty International’s Regional Researcher for Thailand Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong said:
“Billy’s brave pursuit of justice cost him his life and put his family through a yearslong nightmare of heartbreak, obfuscation and lies as they searched for truth. They deserve to know the full story of what happened to him, and those responsible for this unimaginably horrific murder must be held to account.
“The upcoming and long-overdue verdict is an important test for the Thai judicial system, which has failed victims of enforced disappearances for far too long. The judiciary has now an opportunity to set a new standard when addressing enforced disappearances to ensure they align with international human rights law. Thai authorities also have a chance to show leadership by sending a message to officials working all over the country: that the culture of impunity ends now and enforced disappearances will no longer be tolerated.
“The new Thai government must also immediately accede to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), as well as the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). This commitment would show they are genuinely interested in ensuring that heinous crimes – like the ones against Billy – will not happen again and that those responsible will be swiftly brought to justice.”
Billy was last seen on 17 April 2014 leaving the Kaeng Krachan National Park located in Petchaburi Province, Thailand, where he was allegedly detained by park officials for the alleged illegal possession of wild bee honey.
At the time of his arrest, Billy was travelling to meet with Indigenous Karen villagers in preparation for an upcoming hearing in the villagers’ lawsuit against park officers for the forced evictions of local communities and burning of Karen homes. Billy was also carrying case files related to the lawsuit that have never been recovered.
Five years later, on 3 September 2019, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) announced that Billy’s remains had been found in a burned oil barrel at the bottom of a reservoir in Kaeng Krachan National Park, where he was last seen in custody of the park officials. The department then advised the public prosecutor to indict the four park officials suspected of involvement in Billy’s arrest and detention, including the Chief Officer of the national park and three other officers.
Despite this unprecedented progress in the investigation, the public prosecutor from the Department of Special Litigation, Division 1 dropped all the charges recommended by the DSI in January 2020. In August 2020, the DSI appealed this decision to the Office of the Attorney-General (OAG). Two years later, another significant turning point took place in August 2022 as the OAG decided to indict the four suspects under five charges, including abducting and murdering Billy. The four men deny the charges.
Thailand recently adopted the Act on Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance, which came into effect in February 2023. Amnesty International has previously called for the Thai government to ensure the law is enforced effectively in line with international human rights law and standards. However, since the law took effect after the indictment of the four officers accused in the case of Billy, they could not be charged under the specific crime of enforced disappearance under this new law.
Despite this domestic law, the Thai government has not acceded to the ICPPED and OPCAT yet. According to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, as of August 2022, there were 76 outstanding cases (70 males, 6 females) of enforced disappearance in Thailand.