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Thailand

Erased: A disappearance in Thailand's Deep South

A young man vanishes, three women search for answers

Abby Seiff, Pattani

Abby Seiff, Pattani

Updated: March 07, 2016 10:26 AM GMT
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Erased: A disappearance in Thailand's Deep South

Pattiyo Sohman holds a photo of her missing son, Fadel, who was abducted out the front of a school in southern Thailand by unknown assailants. (Photo by Abby Seiff) 

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It was meant to be her wedding week but teacher Nurainee Adae instead spent an afternoon sitting inside the principal's office, explaining how she unwittingly watched the kidnapping of Fadel Sohman — her fiance.

"It happened on Sunday, Jan. 24, at around 12:30 p.m. At first, I assumed it was a student," said Nurainee, a 25-year-old computer teacher at the Mohammadiah School in Pattani province's Khok Poh district.

At the time of her fiance's abduction, Nurainee was eating lunch with a fellow teacher while most of the students were in the mosque praying.

A scuffle startled them — 50 yards away in the school's parking lot, three men were dragging someone off a motorbike into a waiting car. Two of the abductors wore ordinary clothing while the third had on a bulletproof vest. The trio pulled the kicking man into a beat-up black sedan and peeled away. He fought back so forcefully, the witnesses reported, that his shoes fell off.

Shocked, Nurainee and her co-worker went to the school's director to see if they could figure out who was missing. At the Mohammadiah School the authorities come by frequently — though there has never been an arrest on school grounds before, and certainly not an abduction.

"Because it happened in front of the school gate, I assumed it was a student," said Hilmi Usin, the director of the school.

"I tried to gather the teachers and discuss who was supposed to be here. We were checking the students — who is here and who is missing," he said.

"We did that until 3 p.m. and no one was missing, and then Fadel's sister came up and said she thinks it might be him. She said he came to the school to deliver wedding invitations, but didn't inform his girlfriend that he would be there," he added.

Indeed it was Fadel.

"I have no idea what happened to him," Nurainee said.

Boys walk past the mosque on the grounds of the Mohammadiah School, where Fadel Sohman disappeared on Jan. 24. (Photo by Abby Seiff) 

 

Watch list

In Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and four districts of Songkhla, disappearances are not uncommon. The three southernmost provinces of Thailand have been locked in an insurgency since 2004, when a series of violent attacks broke out between separatists pushing for an autonomous state in the overwhelmingly Malay Muslim region and security forces posted to the region.

Since then, more than 6,500 people — mostly civilians — have been killed and nearly 12,000 wounded in the ongoing conflict. The area is permanently under martial law and a slew of special acts have allowed the 60,000 security forces occupying the area to act with virtually unfettered force.

Like many of his ilk — young, serious men trained at particular religious schools and hailing from particular villages — Fadel had long been on the military's watch list.

He was indicted in 2010 on murder and firearms charges, though the case was thrown out three years later, according to the Muslim Attorney Center, a local legal aid group that has been working with the family. Since then, the military had sought him out frequently.

"Whenever there was a bombing or a shooting, they'd come to the house," said Pattiyo Sohman, Fadel's mother. The latest accusation, said his mother, involved a shooting at a karaoke parlor in the village. Fadel was in Bangkok at the time and, to clear his name, turned himself into the authorities in July.

The Muslim Attorney Center said Fadel spent seven days in Pattani's notorious Ingkhayuth Military Camp and another week in an unknown military facility before being released without charges. His family and lawyers do not know what happened to him during those 14 days in custody, but when he came out he began working for the government's paramilitary.

"When Fadel joined the paramilitary, we don't know what they gave him," said his sister, Fadilah Sohman. "But think why you would need to do that. Try and identify the reason."

For the six months leading up to his disappearance, the paramilitary became increasingly demanding of Fadel's time and energy, said his family. They would call him and he'd disappear to Bangkok or Chumphon at a moment's notice. When he returned, he refused to say a word about what he had done.

"It seems like he had a restriction. He couldn't go anywhere, he would just wait for the phone to ring," said his mother.

After beginning his work with the paramilitary, said his sister, "it's not Fadel. It's a different Fadel."

 

Students chat during a break between classes at the Mohammadiah School, where Fadel Sohman disappeared. (Photo by Abby Seiff)  

 

Official explanations

The authorities have given the family two explanations for why Fadel vanished. One is that he was kidnapped by separatists. The other explanation — which is particularly appalling to his family — is that his brother, Fadellan, who is in hiding and whom police suspect of being an insurgent, kidnapped him.

There are also other theories the authorities have. The police went to Nurainee's house one day and said "maybe you arranged for it because he was a playboy," said Fadilah, her voice rising.

What they refuse to investigate, however, is the possibility that state security forces kidnapped Fadel.

The day before Fadel disappeared he returned from another weeklong "mystery" trip to Bangkok. He sat quietly in the house thinking, said his family.

"I suspect the military forcibly disappeared Fadel," said Pattiyo. Her daughter interjected: "Why they did it, we're not sure."

By refusing to cast the net wide, authorities appear to be actively trying to pressure Fadel's family into dropping the matter. His mother and sister say police and military have showed up at their home countless times since the disappearance. When they hosted local and national reporters in the weeks after, "the military came to our house and asked 'how did you contact the journalists and why,'" said Fadilah. "Some journalists see the military and are afraid."  

Khok Pho district police Capt. Somphob Boonchan, insisted police have been investigating but said there are no real leads.

"There are still no suspects as of now because we don't know who's behind this incident. There's no CCTV camera. The eyewitness didn't see the faces of the perpetrators. They only saw their backs," he said. Asked if they were considering the possibility of an enforced disappearance, Captain Somphob demurred. "This case is under investigation so we can't say anything now."

Students walk in front of the spot where witnesses saw Fadel Sohman get kidnapped on Jan. 24.  (Photo by Abby Seiff) 

 

History of disappearances

Just weeks before Fadel vanished, the United Nations highlighted Thailand's long-standing problem with disappearances. Since 1980, 82 people have disappeared.

Enforced disappearance has yet to be criminalized in Thailand, so even in cases where state security is involved, they can only face lesser charges. More often than not, such cases are overturned and rarely thoroughly investigated.

Insurgents may have kidnapped Fadel, but given that police won't even consider the possibility that military or paramilitary abducting him is indicative of a systemic failure to investigate such cases, rights campaigners say.

"We don't want the police to discount the possibility this may be an enforced disappearance," said Kingsley Abbott, a legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists in Bangkok.

"There are three main reasons to believe it could be. First, there is a long history of enforced disappearance in Thailand, particularly in the Deep South.  Many of those cases involve the victim being abducted off the street and pushed into a vehicle, so there is a similar MO [method of operation]," Abbott said.

"Fadel also has a history of contact with the military and had been detained at military camps in the past, so he is not completely unknown to the state authorities," he added.

Kaosat Ali-mamah, a paralegal at the Muslim Attorney Center, who has assisted in the case and compiles data on torture and enforced disappearances, said the government was falling short of its obligations.

"The government said we will not have disappearance cases anymore. But then it keeps happening and people want to know why," said Kaosat.

Additional reporting by Rin Jirenuwat. 

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