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UN concerned over investigation into Thai activist’s abduction

Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent Thai pro-democracy activist living in exile in Phnom Penh, was abducted by a group of men on the street near his home on June 4, according to Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch

A group of United Nations experts expressed concern in a letter to the Cambodian government over a lack of progress in the investigation into the disappearance of a Thai pro-democracy activist living in exile in Phnom Penh who was allegedly abducted on June 4.

The letter sent to Cambodia’s foreign minister Prak Sokhonn on July 15 and released September 14 asks for detailed information on the investigation, which National Police officials said is ongoing.

The UN Human Rights Office Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which consists of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith and three other special experts, wrote the latest letter after an initial request for information was sent on June 12. 

“We are extremely concerned by the alleged lack of progress in the investigation and that Mr. Satsaksit’s fate and whereabouts remain unknown,” the experts say in the letter.

“We welcome the information that an investigation is being conducted, but are concerned that, more than one month on, no information is available on the progress of the investigation or identity of the perpetrators and that the fate and whereabouts of Mr. Wanchalearm Satsaksit remain unknown,” it says.

The 37-year-old activist and Thai government critic fled his home nation after the 2014 military coup and has since been living in exile in Cambodia, where he has continued to criticize the government on his social media pages. He previously worked as a campaigner for a former Thai minister from the Pheu Thai Party and is a supporter of the “Red Shirts” political movement.

According to a June 5 statement from Human Rights Watch (HRW), Wanchalearm had been seen being forced into a black car by a group of armed men at 5:54 pm on June 4 near his home, and witness accounts of the kidnapping were corroborated by security footage from nearby apartment buildings.

The rapporteur’s letter said Cambodia “should take all necessary measures to search for, locate and protect Wanchalearm, including through a comprehensive strategy to search for him and investigate his disappearance,” in line with international conventions that Cambodia is signatory to.

It goes on to list specific requests for more information, including on “the steps authorities are taking to locate and protect Wanchalearm,” and “the steps taken to ascertain the identity and affiliation of the perpetrators.”

It also asks for proof on whether the authorities leading the investigation are independent, and how those officials are cooperating and sharing information with the relevant Thai authorities. 

“We reiterate that the investigation should be prompt, thorough and impartial,” it adds. 

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said September 14 that he wasn’t aware of the UN rapporteurs’ letter, but said the government had already informed the UN about its investigation into the disappearance of Wanchalearm, referring to a letter sent by Cambodia’s permanent mission to the UN on June 19. The letter said Cambodian authorities have no knowledge or leads on the alleged abduction.

“We have already announced that we have not yet found him, and if there is anyone who knows [his whereabouts], please provide us with that information, too,” he said.

In response to the request for an independent investigation, the spokesman said Cambodian authorities are already conducting a thorough investigation, and that the creation of a special committee would not be necessary.

“Independent or not independent, authorities have been conducting the investigation according to the laws and it is our authority, so we do not need to create an independent committee,” Sopheak said.

National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun, said that regardless of the concerns raised by the UN experts, police are still investigating Wanchalearm’s disappearance.

“This case is the duty of the police, and if we cannot find anything, how can we verify more information to tell them,” he said.

“We have not yet found him and they [the UN rapporteurs] are still pressuring us,” Kim Khoeun said.

“We are still taking efforts to find him and whether they choose to recognize that or not is their business,” he continued. “But they have to be transparent. They have to make an assessment, to have a clear reason, and they should not make unfair judgements,” he said. 

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong declined to comment and referred questions to the Interior Ministry.

The document also says that a similar letter had been sent to the Thai government.

In June 2018, Thai authorities issued an arrest warrant for Wanchalearm, alleging that he violated the Computer-Related Crime Act due to a Facebook page that he operated that was critical of the Thai government, according to the statement from HRW. Senior Thai police officers said at the time the arrest warrant was issued that they would find a way to bring Wanchalearm back to Thailand, the statement added.

Thailand has also actively pursued dissidents who fled to nearby countries in 2014, demanding that Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia hand them over, HRW says, with at least eight of them becoming victims of forced disappearances.


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