Following the 11th session of the Human Rights Council the Government of Thailand objected to the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) over it having characterized the Royal Thai Police as the top violator of human rights in that country. The government representative described remarks that the police in Thailand enjoy impunity for rights abuses as "unsubstantiated".
The ALRC categorically rejects the complaint of the government that these remarks are unsubstantiated. If the government delegation truly believes this then it speaks to its sheer ignorance about the situation of human rights in its own country. However, given the Permanent Representative’s personal involvement in the ministries of governments responsible for gross abuses, the ALRC is inclined to the view that the delegation is being disingenuous. Numerous other rights groups, at least one United Nations treaty body, and more than one Special Procedure have in one way or another all said the same thing as the ALRC. The response of the delegation indicates not a concern for the rights of people in Thailand but annoyance that systemic abuses can no longer be swept under the carpet. Still, as the delegation complains that it is the ALRC making the “sweeping” remarks, it is necessary to reiterate a few of the cases on which the ALRC has worked in recent years and brought to the notice of the Council:
a. In the most famous human rights case in Thailand of the last decade, the forced abduction, disappearance and presumed murder of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, only one police officer out of five accused was sentenced to a mere three years’ imprisonment. The court found that it was state officers who committed the offence but that there was insufficient evidence to convict the other four. While on bail awaiting appeal, the guilty officer was reportedly killed in an accident; however, his body has not been recovered and the wife of the victim has petitioned the authorities that she believes that he faked his death. Despite almost superhuman effort, she has never obtained an explanation about what happened to her husband. For her and her family, the ALRC's remarks are not "unsubstantiated". Nor are they “unsubstantiated” for the group of five police torture victims whom Somchai was representing at the time of his disappearance, none of whose torturers have ever been brought to justice, even though all five testified before a court about what was done to them, which included strangulation, urination, electrocution and assault, allegedly with the involvement or knowledge of the elite Crime Suppression Division.
b. The ALRC has documented cases of 28 persons whom police at a single police station in Kalasin Province are alleged to have abducted and killed. It has reason to believe that the number is far higher and that the police killers in the region are not confined to this station. So far only one of the cases has been thoroughly investigated and six police are being prosecuted through intervention of the Department of Special Investigation, Ministry of Justice. That the case has got this far is exceptional, and is a credit to the efforts of human rights defenders, a handful of committed persons inside the concerned ministry, and also the perseverance and courage of the victim’s relatives. As with Somchai’s case, whether or not any police will ever be found guilty or punished remains to be seen. Since the alleged perpetrators have been released on bail they are in a position to intimidate witnesses and otherwise pervert the course of justice. The families of other victims recently also petitioned the prime minister to take action in all cases of police abuse in Kalasin. For none of these people are the remarks "unsubstantiated".
c. Similarly, officers who allegedly tortured detainees in Ayutthaya Province have escaped punishment. In one widely-reported case, a victim dropped a charge against police accused of repeatedly electrocuting his genitalia, and went into hiding. The police have complained that they were wrongly identified. After five years prosecution has not begun. The government delegation in Geneva was directly involved in covering up another of these cases before a treaty body. On the same day that an alleged torturer appeared as a witness in a criminal case against his victims, the delegation lied to the Human Rights Committee that the authorities had investigated and taken action against police in that case. The victims were imprisoned and the policeman continued serving in his post. So for the victims of genital electrocution, suffocation and assault in Ayutthaya, the remarks of the ALRC are not "unsubstantiated"; on the contrary, it was the statement of the government delegation to the Committee that was baseless.
d. The extent of police impunity in Thailand is best illustrated in the innumerable cases arising out of the so-called "war on drugs", in which at least 2500 people are believed to have been killed. This "war" occurred under the political opponents of the current government, and it is in the incumbent’s interests to bring some police to trial in a few cases from this period. Most of the killings were deliberately never investigated, but a former National Human Rights Commissioner did examine dozens with more than sufficient evidence, in his opinion, to initiate criminal prosecutions of police. These include the murder of four persons in a single car and another in which officers allegedly planted drugs on a dead man whose body medical staff had already examined without uncovering anything. All the commissioner’s findings were submitted to the government but his official status notwithstanding, he got no response. It is worth noting that at the time of the killings the current Permanent Representative in his capacity as a foreign ministry spokesman told journalists that around 50 police officers were being investigated for abuses during the "war"; however, the ALRC is aware of only two cases that are under investigation and is not aware of any case where a policeman has been imprisoned for murder committed during this period. Even if there are a few cases, the number will still be miniscule compared to the number of victims. For the families of these persons too, to say that police in Thailand get away with murder is not "unsubstantiated".
3. There are so many other incidents that the ALRC could cite, most of which pertain to ordinary affairs and criminal cases. This aspect of the systemic abuse of human rights and police impunity in Thailand needs to be stressed. The ALRC is not even entering into discussion here about of police abuses in the far south, where under circumstances of massive militarization and ongoing armed insurgency abuses take on new dimensions.
4. The ALRC has reason to believe that the number of reported cases of police abuse in Thailand is a tiny fraction of the total, since the majority of victims do not bother to complain. Experience shows that the lodging of complaints invariably only brings official letters saying that the matter is being looked into and perhaps finally a letter from the police saying that they investigated themselves and found that they had done nothing wrong. In the absence of any credible mechanisms to receive and investigate complaints against the police and prosecute alleged perpetrators, there is no way that large numbers of people will come forward and risk harassment, threats and inducements in an attempt to obtain justice. Complainants soon get the message and reach arrangements so that formal inquiries or prosecutions are rare. And as most victims are poor and unable to hire a lawyer or find other persons who can help, only a few cases are brought to public attention through the intervention of local rights groups, journalists or other civic-minded citizens.
5. Recently there have been renewed calls for police reforms in Thailand, buoyed by anger at abuses and widespread impunity. As the present government came to power undemocratically and lacks public backing it is unlikely to achieve anything. The 2006 coup-installed government proposed a raft of police reforms that were blocked by police generals; the present premier had difficulty even to get his choice of police chief approved. And the insidious influence of the police has now reached the National Human Rights Commission, which has among its new members a retired police general who has been assigned responsibility for a sub-committee on justice, from where he will be in a strong position to ensure that the commission, which is no longer in compliance with the Paris Principles, does nothing to bring police perpetrators of rights abuse to account.
6. In closing, the ALRC recalls that in 2005 the Human Rights Committee had the following findings and recommendations for the Government of Thailand on the question of its compliance with the ICCPR:
"10. The Committee is concerned at the persistent allegations of serious human rights violations, including widespread instances of extrajudicial killings and ill-treatment by the police and members of armed forces, illustrated by... the extraordinarily large number of killings during the ‘war on drugs’ which began in February 2003. Human rights defenders, community leaders, demonstrators and other members of civil society continue to be targets of such actions, and any investigations have generally failed to lead to prosecutions and sentences commensurate with the gravity of the crimes committed, creating a culture of impunity...
"The State party should conduct full and impartial investigations into these and such other events and should, depending on the findings of the investigations, institute proceedings against the perpetrators. The State party should also ensure that victims and their families, including the relatives of missing and disappeared persons, receive adequate redress... The State party should actively pursue the idea of establishing an independent civilian body to investigate complaints filed against law enforcement officials...
"15. The Committee is concerned about the persistent allegations of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, as well as ill-treatment at the time of arrest and during police custody. The Committee is also concerned about reports of the widespread use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees by law enforcement officials, including in the so-called ‘safe houses’. It is also concerned at the impunity flowing from the fact that only a few of the investigations into cases of ill-treatment have resulted in prosecutions, and fewer, in convictions, and that adequate compensation to victims has not been provided...
"The State party should guarantee in practice unimpeded access to legal counsel and doctors immediately after arrest and during detention. The arrested person should have an opportunity immediately to inform the family about the arrest and place of detention. Provision should be made for a medical examination at the beginning and end of the detention period. Provision should also be made for prompt and effective remedies to allow detainees to challenge the legality of their detention. Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge must be brought promptly before a judge. The State party should ensure that all alleged cases of torture, ill-treatment, disproportionate use of force by police and death in custody are fully and promptly investigated, that those found responsible are brought to justice, and that compensation is provided to the victims or their families.” (CCPR/CO/84/THA)
7. The Government of Thailand has not ever seriously followed through on any of these recommendations. Instead of complaining that remarks about manifest gross abuses of human rights and blanket impunity of the Royal Thai Police are “unsubstantiated”, the Government of Thailand would do better to consider why it has failed, after four years, to do anything about the observations and guidance of this treaty body, and what needs to be done about it.
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About the ALRC: The Asian Legal Resource Centre is an independent regional non-governmental organisation holding general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It is the sister organisation of the Asian Human Rights Commission. The Hong Kong-based group seeks to strengthen and encourage positive action on legal and human rights issues at the local and national levels throughout Asia.