Interview with Robert Amsterdam

Prachatai talked to Thaksin’s lawyer Robert Amsterdam in about mid-August.  The transcription below has been edited and some parts are missing, as the interview was done over the phone.

Why did you decide to be Thaksin’s representative in his case?

Well, I think Mr Thaksin is No 1) an important historical figure, No 2) I think that the coup that unseated Dr Thaksin was completely illegal and illegitimate.  And the charges that he has faced and continues to face are without any grounding in law. So I feel his case is an important case because it gives an example of political opponents using the law for their own benefits.

But Thaksin is also a controversial person.  Since before the coup, he has had a record of human rights abuse.  Do you know about this?

Certainly.  And my views in respect to the issues of human rights abuse are that they need to be examined.  Mr Thaksin’s cases, these allegations, have been examined.  There’s been no foundation laid for them.  I think it’s very important for the people of Thailand to draw a line between accusation and reality, between actions conducted legitimately on behalf of the state and actions conducted in respect to personal or political agenda.

Do you know that the red shirts also had weapons and maybe some explosives because there is a report from the Reporters Without Border (RSF) which says foreign reporters got injured by M79 grenades fired from the red shirts’ side?

I’ve written an article about this.  I believe that the wild and vast preponderance of ammunition was on the side of the army, and on the side of provocateurs planted by the government.  This is a practice followed by the Thai government in earlier situations such as the demonstrations in 92, and it’s been well documented.  What I have asked for again and again is an impartial, independent investigation.  Let’s get to the facts properly.  The fact that the Thai government doesn’t agree with that investigation, the fact that they delay, the fact that they arrest people and label them as terrorists before they have the evidence tells me that they have a great deal to hide.  I’m also gathering evidence. I’m also reviewing evidence.  And I wonder why the Thai government isn’t.

In your report, you say that if Thailand wants reconciliation, we have to accept the facts. Your involvement in the case may help contribute to the rifts instead of reconciliation.

To be frank with you, there are so few voices that are allowed to speak freely because of all of the controls the government puts on between the Internal Security Act, Lese Majeste, and the Computer Crimes Act.  And I think Thailand needs many more people to speak out for those who don’t have a voice.  90 people have just been murdered in the streets of Bangkok.  I was there. I witnessed some of them.  I can tell you there aren’t enough people speaking.  An outrage occurred in Bangkok, and it’s a systemic outrage, and it happens every dozen or two dozen years. So there’s nothing unique about this.  This is a pattern within Thailand. And that’s why it’s important that the people who perpetrated this are investigated and charged.  And reconciliation only can happen with truths. I’m an old guy. I remember in 1970s and 80s when Latin American governments were converting to democracy, and the old generals kept talking about reconciliation when they really meant they wanted to give themselves an amnesty so that they wouldn’t be charged with the war crimes and human rights abuses.  Don’t let the word reconciliation fool you. If they really want reconciliation, they wouldn’t be calling people terrorists.

It’s not only the government that tries to brand the red shirts as terrorists.  There are many Thai people who support the government.  Do you think you or Thaksin can reconcile with the people who support the government?

Listen. In every country, Guatemala, any country where there’s been civil war, there’s always a possibility of reconciliation, if it’s honest.  The red-shirt leaders who surrendered to avoid bloodshed should not be in a military encampment today.  You don’t do that to those people who surrendered if you actually want reconciliation.  You’ve got to stop looking at the words people use and start looking at the actions they take.  When they labeled Thaksin as a terrorist, which in modern history has not happened to ex-Prime Ministers outside of countries like Zimbabwe. They showed their hand.  They showed what they really believe.

Besides Zimbabwe, do you have other cases similar to that of Thaksin?  Do you have an example of your past success?

I’ve been involved in cases like these all my life.  I’ve been involved for 15 years in a case in Guatemala, involving what I call state capture where elites have captured the state for the benefits of their own.  Unfortunately, Thailand and the situation of Dr Thaksin is not unique.  And don’t let the elites tell you that it’s unique.  Human rights are global.  Human rights and the rule of law are for everybody.  And whether you call them the Asian values […] in Thailand or in Russia you call it sovereign democracy.  Elites will always come up with terminology to say that their particular country is different, and, therefore, human rights should not be respected. The fact that Thailand has a state of emergency is such a great shame on the people of Thailand.  That their government thinks that they can get away with this phony state of emergency is unbelievable.  […] What they need is something called an election.  And that seems to be the thing they are most afraid of.

In the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, what do you think about the criticism that you did not pay much attention to the case itself, but tried to attract the attention of the media, instead of getting to the point of the case? 

I find it humorous.  Because in Russia, I was arrested at two o’clock in the morning and risked my life to defend human rights in Russia.  All these people who criticized me.  Let them take the risks I took.  Let them call Mr Putin a thief as I did in Moscow, and then let them criticize.  In terms of human rights what I did by not fighting inside the court because I’m not a Russian lawyer. What I did by staying outside would say this was not a real court.  This was not a legitimate prosecution. And I said that 5 years before the rest of the world understood I was right, years before the Council of Europe supported everything that I said, years before the Swiss Federal Court agreed with everything that the Council of Europe said when they said that Khodorkovsky did not have a […] trial. We proved, the entire team around Khodorkovsky, proved that the Russian state engaged in a political trial and we proved that Russia violated the international law.  So there’s a lot of people who can make comparison don’t know all of the legal precedents that the legal team set, largely based on work all of us have done […] and the Council of Europe.  The problem is everybody looks at the headlines.  Nobody understands the facts.  We’ve been involved in dozens and dozens of cases, from Guatemala to Russia to Nigeria to Venezuela. We’ve just freed the political prisoners in Venezuela.  We’ve just returned the political figures in Nigeria.  But everybody in Thailand is trying to focus on the Russian case ‘cause they want to try to taint my efforts.  And, quite frankly, I’m very proud of the work that I have done for Mr Kordokovsky and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done for the last thirty years, fighting for the rule of law in difficult countries.

Do you think that the court system in Russia is similar to or different from the one in Thailand?

The court system in Russia is hopelessly corrupt and the Russian judges admitted it.  The court system in Thailand is hopelessly political and not independent and the judges and the world recognizes that that is the case.  I mean in the case of Thaksin they had to appoint judges and individuals that were tainted by the political dislike of Thaksin in order to convict him.  There was no independent judiciary. The world watches and the world knows.  And the shame of this Thai government and this Prime Minister for not calling for a proper investigation is a stain on Thailand and he bears the responsibility.  He and his Democratic Party and all of the undemocratic things that they have done as well as those in the military that engaged in turning Bangkok into a free fire zone. No matter what they say, they can’t depart from the truth.  We’ve published the white paper.  And all they […] attack me.  And I’m pleased with that because the only thing they can do to attack me, and they can’t come up with a logical argument against the white paper. The white paper is correct.  And I urge everybody who listens to this interview to read the white paper and judge our work by themselves.

But it’s not just white paper. If Prachatai publishes this interview, you might be sued by the Thai court. It maybe can be defined as you’re insulting the court.  Are you sure that we can publish this interview, in the part of talking about the Thai court?

[…] what I said about the Thai court has been published in hundreds of publication.  So whatever needs to be done about the Thai courts and the Thai government, the Thai courts can do.  You know I’ve already been banned from Thailand (laughing) for speaking the truth, which I find kind of funny.  So I’m not terribly concerned.  You can always distort words. You can always try to create offences.  What they need to know is one word.  That word is election.  They need to have a courage to fight in election, and stop putting their political opponents in jail.

As you said you’ve already been banned from Thailand, is it getting more difficult for you to continue with the case?

No. I know that they can ban me.  They can do what they like.  I won’t stop writing.  I won’t stop speaking out.  And we won’t stop assisting the lawyers in Thailand to do what they can to fight a type of prejudice and lack of independence that exists.  And let me be clear.  I’m sure there are many very honest, reputable Thai judges who may be prepared to […] the political pressure.  We just have to be clear that … you can’t have independent court when you have this level of political machination going on.

How has Thaksin’s case progressed?

In terms of Dr Thaksin’s case, it gets very complex and I leave to my Thai colleagues to speak directly about particular cases and particular issues. As you know, there’s a series of them. I leave to particular lawyers on particular cases to comment. I’m not going speak specifically or make comments on particular charges or cases. I leave that to my Thai colleagues to address as they see fit.

So it seems that now many red-shirt supporters have really high expectation about your work.  Do you have anything to say to them?

My view is that it’s better to deal with no expectations than high expectations.  We all need to understand that the government is behaving in a manner that is not legal, that doesn’t follow any rule book.  They are trying to hide.  They’re trying to walk away from the international obligations. They’ve engaged in very […] attacks on their own populous […] for which I will assure people they will ultimately answer. And […], first, it’s important to give the Thai government the rights that they have under the international law to investigate themselves.  We are sending another letter this week to Prime Minister, urging him to abide by Thailand’s own obligations under the international covenant of civil political rights and do what the government has undertaken to do by signing that treaty which is to properly investigate and provide the Thai people with the truth.  They have a collective right to the truth of what happened.  Stop labeling people as terrorists.  Stop attacking the rights of individuals, and start investigating the conduct of what actually happened.  Foreigners as well as Thais were gunned down in those streets and everyone requires a proper answer.