11 July 2024

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The sister of an exiled Thai dissident who was reportedly abducted in Cambodia earlier this year appeared before a judge in Cambodia’s capital on Tuesday to offer evidence that she hopes will lead to an official investigation into her brother’s disappearance.

A group of armed men snatched Wanchalearm Satsaksit, 38, off the street in front of his apartment in Phnom Penh, the capital, in early June before taking him away in a black car, according to human rights groups and fellow activists, citing witness accounts and security video at the building.

Sitanan Satsaksit, the dissident’s older sister, was joined by her lawyers at the office of the investigating judge at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and said she hoped the meeting would prompt a formal investigation into her brother’s whereabouts. Cambodia has denied that any abduction took place and said no investigation was planned.

“I’m glad that I can come today. I’m confident that the evidence we have is enough to prove that Wanchalearm was here and disappeared here,” Sitanan told media outside the court, speaking in Thai. “We hope the documents we give to Cambodian authorities will be able to help them investigate and solve this case.”

Cambodian police initially said they would not investigate the disappearance of Wanchalearm because they were unaware of any abduction.

However, Interior Ministry spokesperson Gen. Khieu Sopheak later said that police would welcome complaints and evidence from witnesses, rights groups and family members and be happy to offer their cooperation.

Amnesty International criticized Cambodia’s response in a statement Tuesday, with Yamini Mishra, the group’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, quoted as saying, “It has moved at a snail’s pace and key evidence appears to have been ignored.”

“The Cambodian authorities need to show that they are undertaking a credible investigation or serious questions will be asked about whether they are acting in good faith,” Mishra added.

Sitanan arrived in Cambodia in early November after being summoned by the court, and late last week she held a Buddhist ceremony in front of the building where her brother was reportedly abducted.

In June, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that an arrest warrant issued in 2018 alleged that Wanchalearm violated the Computer Crime Act by operating a Facebook page from Cambodia that was critical of the Thai government.

Wanchalearm had been residing in the neighboring country since 2014, the year Thailand’s military seized power in a coup.

Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesperson, said that in 2015, Wanchalearm was granted a visa allowing him to stay until the end of 2017, but after that officials did not know whether Wanchalearm had been living illegally in hiding in Cambodia or if he had secretly left the country.

In June, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a Thai activist who spent seven years in prison for the crime of insulting the monarchy, gave The Associated Press a secondhand account of the incident involving Wanchalearm.

Somyot said Wanchalearm was talking on his phone and walking to buy snacks at a nearby mini-mart when he was abducted. The other person on the phone call “heard noises, a commotion,” men speaking possibly in a foreign language, and Wanchalearm saying he couldn’t breathe, according to Somyot, who heard the account from the other person on the call.

That person said a friend of Wanchalearm saw security camera footage of armed men taking Wanchalearm away in a black car.

The reported abduction recalled a series of disappearances in Laos from 2016 to 2018. At least eight Thai exiles were abducted in the neighboring country, and the bodies of several were later found floating in the Mekong River.

Those disappearances raised suspicions they had been kidnapped by a death squad, either vigilantes or officially sanctioned.

The victims were associated with Thailand’s Red Shirt political movement that staged aggressive street protests in Bangkok in 2010 that were violently crushed by the military. From exile, they had continued propagating anti-government statements, mostly over the Internet.