Armed men snatched Wanchalearm Satsaksit off the street in front of his apartment in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh late Thursday afternoon, Human Rights Watch said Friday, citing witnesses and a security video at the building. He was then bundled into a black car that drove away.
Cambodia denied any abduction had taken place and said no investigation was planned. An arrest warrant issued in 2018 alleged Wanchalearm violated the Computer Crime Act by operating a Facebook page from Phnom Penh critical of the Thai government, the rights group said.
“At that time, senior Thai police officers vowed to bring Wanchalearm back to Thailand one way or another,” its statement said. Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, an activist from the same political circle who spent seven years in prison for the crime of insulting the monarchy, gave The Associated Press a secondhand account of Thursday’s incident.
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 second person on the phone call.
She said a friend of Wanchalearm saw security camera footage of armed men taking Wanchalearm into a black car. At least eight Thai exiles were abducted in Laos in 2016-2018, 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 the 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.
Thailand's government and military have denied involvement in the the disappearances in Laos. Thailand was ruled by the military from a 2014 army coup until last year, when elections installed a government headed by the same former army commander who staged the coup and led the military regime.
A Cambodian police spokesman denied any knowledge of Wanchalearm being kidnapped and said since no abduction had taken place, no investigation would be done. “Since this morning I have received about 50 calls asking me about this news but replying to them all the same...I said this is fake news, untrue news,” Gen. Chhay Kim Khouen said.
Human Rights Watch had called for an urgent investigation. While some Thai dissidents managed to obtain political asylum in Western countries, others who lacked connections, documentation and funds were stuck after fleeing to Laos and Cambodia. Some tried to keep doing political work over the internet, while others preferred to keep a low profile.
All live in limbo because of the transactional nature of Thailand’s relations with its neighbors, who might regard it advantageous to hand over the fugitives.
Associated Press writer Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.