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(New York) - The Thai authorities should urgently provide information about a prominent ethnic Karen activist who is believed to have been forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said today. Por Cha Lee Rakcharoen, known as "Billy," was reportedly arrested on April 17, 2014, in Kaengkrachan National Park in Petchaburi province and released, but his current whereabouts are unknown.
Local authorities have not disclosed either Billy's detention or any evidence of his release, raising grave concerns of his safety, Human Rights Watch said. Billy was involved in a lawsuit against park officials.
"The apparent disappearance of this prominent Karen activist demands an immediate government response," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Thai authorities should not stay silent about Billy's case but explain what happened to him."
The head of the Kaengkrachan National Park Office, Chaiwat Limlikitaksor, told local activists on April 18 that Billy had been detained at a checkpoint the previous afternoon. He said Billy was taken for questioning regarding an unlawful wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey allegedly found in his possession. Chaiwat also said Billy had been released after questioning and that he had no information regarding his whereabouts.
At the time of his alleged disappearance, Billy was travelling from his village in the mountains to Petchaburi province's Kaengkrachan district to meet with ethnic Karen villagers and activists in preparation for an upcoming court hearing in the lawsuit filed by the villagers against the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the head of Kaengkrachan National Park. The villagers alleged in the lawsuit that in July 2011, the authorities were responsible for the destruction and burning of houses and property of more than 20 Karen families who were living in the Bangkloybon Villages in the national park.
Billy was also preparing to submit a petition about this case to Thailand's king. He had been carrying case files and related documents with him.
Villagers and local activists have made several attempts to contact Billy, but without success. On April 19, Billy's family filed a complaint with the local police regarding his alleged enforced disappearance.
On September 10, 2011, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Tatkamol Ob-om, a Thai activist from Billy's network, shortly after he helped Karen villagers report on alleged abuses, violence, illegal logging, and poaching committed by park officials. In January 2012, the Phetchaburi provincial court accepted a case against Chaiwat, the head of the Kaengkrachan National Park Office, charging him with masterminding Tatkamol's murder. Four alleged accomplices have been indicted for premeditated murder. Despite that, Chaiwat has not been suspended from duty as required under disciplinary regulations regarding officials under criminal investigation. Chaiwat's presence at the national park has been a cause of fear among local activists and villagers, particularly those involved in lawsuits against him.
Under international law, a government commits an enforced disappearance when state officials take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person's whereabouts. Family members and lawyers are not informed of the person's whereabouts, well-being, or legal status. "Disappeared" people are often at high risk of torture, especially when they are detained outside of formal detention facilities such as police jails and prisons.
"National parks should be a place to enjoy natural beauty and serene vistas, not a place for officials to abuse people," Adams said. "So long as Billy's whereabouts are unknown, a sense of fear will stalk the park communities demanding their rights."