A long-stalled bill criminalizing torture and political disappearances cleared its first hurdle in the Thai parliament Wednesday as victims’ families struggle for answers in scores of unsolved missing-persons cases.
The United Nations estimates there have been at least 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand since 1980, but experts say the true figure could be higher.
Human rights activists accuse Thai authorities of involvement, but perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.
In an effort to counter that, lawmakers in the Thai House of Representatives unanimously passed draft laws on Wednesday after a decade of delays.
Under the changes, perpetrators convicted of political disappearances or torture cases involving death could face between 15 and 30 years in jail.
The bill still has to go to the Senate for approval, which could happen in the next parliamentary sitting in May.
Angkana Nilapaijit, a human rights activist whose lawyer husband Somchai Neelaphaijit went missing in 2004, was on the drafting committee. She said the bill was written in accordance with international conventions against torture and enforced disappearances.
“We are confident this bill will protect people,” she said.
If approved, the legal changes would apply in cases of people who have already gone missing.
Parents and partners of missing people will be eligible to undertake legal action to seek compensation.
The development may bring some solace to the loved ones of missing activists who have been campaigning for legal reform for years.
In June 2020, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a pro-democracy activist self-exiled in Cambodia was allegedly snatched off the streets in broad daylight.
He ran an acerbic anti-government Facebook page and was wanted on sedition charges — Cambodian and Thai police have made no headway in investigating his whereabouts.
Another high-profile case was the disappearance of Karen rights activist Billy Porlajee Rakjongcharoen in 2014.
Amnesty International Thailand director Piyanut Kotsan said the draft law offered “a glimmer of hope” for victims and their grieving families.
“There is still much work to be done to address the injustices suffered by families and hold perpetrators to account,” she said.
Last year former Thai district police chief Thitisan Utthanaphon — nicknamed “Joe Ferrari” due to his penchant for luxury cars — was indicted on murder charges following the death by suffocation of a drug suspect during an interrogation.