Are Secret Trials Compatible with Liberties and Rights?

According to the recent ruling of the Constitutional Court in relation to the case of Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, the answer to this question is yes. While further information about the ruling and its implications will unfold over the next few days and weeks, a few preliminary observations are in order.

On 9 February 2011, the Appeal Court vacated the original ruling and referred the case of Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul to the Constitutional Court, noting that the original decision by the examining judge in the Court of First Instance to hold her trial in camera may have been unconstitutional. Daranee was accused of violating Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code [the lèse majesté law], and the Court of First Instance cited concerns of national security as the reason for holding the trial behind closed doors. There are at least two possible interpretations of the logic behind this decision. First, given that the words she was prosecuted for uttering were spoken on Sanam Luang, this concern was hollow but may also refracts the fear and apprehension within the establishment [whoever they may be] about dissident speech in any form. One might think that dissident speech would be disciplined once inside the courtroom, but apparently the judge in the Court of First Instance worried otherwise. Second, this may have simply been another way for the Court to restrict the rights of a dissident citizen. By citing ‘national security’ [and then conflating it with the monarchy], it became difficult, if not impossible, to question.

At the time, the most pressing issue was whether or not Daranee would be released while the Constitutional Court conducted its examination. Given that the Appeal Court vacated the ruling against her, this would seem possible, if not de rigueur. Yet her request for bail was denied. As close followers of the case are aware, she faces severe health problems that are unable to be treated within the general prison healthcare system and has continually requested that she be allowed to seek proper medical care. Within this context the denial of bail while the Constitutional Court examined the case is inhumane as well potentially procedurally suspect.

Beyond the immediate question of whether or not Daranee would be granted bail, a thorny question of conflict between the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) and the 2007 Constitution loomed. At that time, I wrote about potential stakes in the decision and argued that while the issue was presented as procedural, the very issue of justice was also on the line. This is even clearer now that the Constitutional Court has issued their examination of the case. What is in question is the relationship between Article 177 of the CPC and Articles 29 and 40 of the 2007 Constitution.

Article 177 of the CPC reads:

“The court has the power to order a secret trial when it is suitable either via the court’s own authority or the request of either party in the case. It must be for the benefit of the peacefulness and order or good morals of the people, or to protect secret state information related to the safety of the country from being known by the people”  [“ศาลมีอำนาจสั่งให้พิจารณาเป็นการลับ เมื่อเห็นสมควรโดยพลการหรือโดยคำร้องขอของคู่ความฝ่ายใด แต่ต้องเพื่อประโยชน์แห่ง ความสงบเรียบร้อยหรือ ศีลธรรมอันดีของประชาชน หรือเพื่อป้องกันความลับอันเกี่ยวกับความปลอดภัยของประเทศมิให้ล่วงรู้ถึง ประชาชน”].

Article 29  of the 2007 Constitution reads:

“The restriction of rights and liberties of a person as recognized by the Constitution shall not be imposed except by virtue of law specifically enacted for the purpose determined by this Constitution and to the extent of necessity and provided that it shall not affect the essential substances of such rights and liberties”  [การจำกัดสิทธิและเสรีภาพของบุคคลที่รัฐธรรมนูญรับรองไว้ จะกระทำมิได้ เว้นแต่โดยอาศัยอำนาจตามบทบัญญัติแห่งกฎหมาย เฉพาะเพื่อการที่รัฐธรรมนูญนี้กำหนดไว้และเท่าที่จำเป็น และจะกระทบกระเทือนสาระสำคัญแห่งสิทธิและเสรีภาพนั้นมิได้ ].

Part 2 of Article 40 of the 2007 Constitution, which addresses the rights of citizens in a judicial process, notes that these rights: 

“shall consist at least of the right to public trial; right to be adequately informed of the facts and to inspect documents, right to present one’s facts, defenses and evidence, right to object to judges, right to be considered by the full bench of judges, and right to be informed of the reasons for a ruling, judgment or order”
[ซึ่งอย่างน้อยต้องมีหลักประกันขั้นพื้นฐานเรื่องการได้รับการพิจารณาโดย เปิดเผย การได้ รับทราบข้อเท็จจริงและตรวจเอกสาร อย่างเพียงพอ การเสนอข้อเท็จจริง ข้อโต้แย้ง และพยานหลักฐานของตน การคัดค้าน ผู้พิพากษาหรือตุลาการ การได้รับการพิจารณาโดย ผู้พิพากษาหรือตุลาการที่นั่งพิจารณาคดีครบองค์คณะ และการได้รับทราบเหตุผลประกอบคำวินิจฉัย คำพิพากษา หรือคำสั่ง].

The tension between the CPC and the Constitution is unmistakable. What are the meanings of the words “necessity,” “rights,” and “liberties” in this phrase in Article 29: “the extent of necessity and provided that it shall not affect the essential substances of such rights and liberties.” In the examination posted as a PDF file on the website of the Constitutional Court, the Court itself does not shy away from the importance of this case. In fact, as is noted several times in the four-and-half pages of text, the Court has never before examined the constitutionality of Article 177 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

So what did they decide?  The full decision can be read on Prachatai, but here is a rough translation of the crucial passage [emphasis added]:

“Examination in secret does not mean that either side will not be treated fairly in the judicial process and does not in any way restrict the rights of the defendant in a criminal case. This is because in regards to examination in secret, Article 178 of the Criminal Procedure Code mandates that involved individuals have the right to be in the courtroom, such as the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s lawyer, the defendant and the defendant’s lawyer, the defendant’s guards, witnesses, experts, interpreters, etc. This shows that Article 177 of the Criminal Procedure Code is an article in line with the basic rights for individuals in the justice system put in place by the Constitution even though it has some limiting effects on the rights and freedoms of individuals. But this is a limiting of individual rights and freedoms only to the extent that it is necessary. There are no significant repercussions on rights and freedoms

[การพิจารณาเป็นการลับ  ก็มิได้หมายความว่าคู่ความฝ่ายใดฝ่ายหนึ่งจะไม่ได้รับความเป็นธรรมในกระบวนการ ยุติธรรมและมิได้จำกัดสิทธิของจำเลยในคดีอาญาแต่อย่างใด  เพราะเมื่อมีการพิจารณาเป็นการลับ  ประมวลกฎหมายวิธีพิจารณาความอาญา มาตรา ๑๗๘ กำหนดให้มีบุคคลที่เกี่ยวข้องกับการพิจารณามิสิทธิอยู่ในห้องพิจารณาได้  อาทิเช่น  โจทย์และทนายของโจทย์  จำเละและทนายของจำเลย  ผู้ควบคุมตัวจำเลย  พยาน  ผู้เชี่ยวชาญ  และล่าม เป็นต้น  จึงเห็นได้ว่าประมวลกฎหมายวิธีพิจารณาความอาญา มาตรา ๑๗๗ เป็นบทบัญญัติที่อยู่ในขอบเขตแห่งการใช้สิทธิพื้นฐานใน กระบวนพิจารณาแก่บุคคลตามที่รัฐธรรมนูญรับรองไว้  ถึงแม้จะมีผลเป็นการจำกัดสิทธิและเสรีภาพของบุคคลอยู่บ้าง  แต่ก็เป็นการจำกัดสิทธิและเสรีภาพของบุคคลเพียงเท่าที่จำเป็น  มิได้กระทบกระเทือนสาระสำคัญแห่งสิทธิและเสรีภาพ]

No significant effects on rights or freedoms? จริงหรือคะ? By placing the emphasis on Articles 177 and 178 of the CPC, rather than the issue of what constitutes national security, the Constitutional Court seems to suggest that trials held behind closed doors are absolutely fine. While I am relieved that the Court has affirmed the importance of defendants being present during a trial, this is a deeply concerning ruling. It is worth asking what it means when the public is excluded from observing a trial – in a democracy, or a state which claims to be one, is the public not a relevant and involved party to a court case?


Elizabeth Fitzgerald is a pen name of an observer of Thai politics.

This is such an excellent

This is such an excellent report... it's actually worthy of a newspaper. Tear of joy ran down my cheeks as I read it. Well... almost. I've been reading the Bangkok Post... where 'news' articles are no more than a series of anecdotes and allegations... for so long that I've despaired of ever being treated with the respect due a child much less an adult when I read the 'news' in Thailand. This story has not 'broken' yet in the Thai English language disinformation media, although here is the evidence that it has in the press.

It is worth asking what it means when the public is excluded from observing a trial – in a democracy, or a state which claims to be one, is the public not a relevant and involved party to a court case?

Perhaps the answer lies here...

Article 177 of the CPC reads:

“The court has the power to order a secret trial when it is suitable... It must be... to protect secret state information related to the safety of the country from being known by the people”

...if it is acknowledged that in the 'elite' equation...

the safety of the country ≡ the safety of the 'elite'

...the government of the 'elite', by the 'elite', for the 'elite'.

Thank you Elizabeth Fitzgerald and thank you Prachatai for giving a demonstration of the Art & Science of mass communications. If the Bangkok Post had an ounce of integrity they would be shamed. But of course they don't have an ounce of integrity.

This decision is a travesty.

This decision is a travesty. All Thais should be ashamed of their Constitutional Court and should be fearful of the consequences of such a decision for all those who face a justice system that is decrepit, inept and politically biased.

Somyos has received his

Somyos has received his sentence first, the verdict will follow afterward... after his trial in a year or so. No bail. No hurry. Whenever the Kangaroo Kourt is so directed it will deliver the guilty verdict. No question Somyos's guilty... here in Thailand being charged is the equivalent of being found guilty.

"If we didn't know, deep in our souls, that you were guilty... we wouldn't have charged you, would we?"

So it's 'understandable' that there is immediate imprisonment... 84 days before being charged in Somyos' case. It's understandable that there is no bail... why bail? Why hurry to trial? He's guilty!

The rest of the world is being treated to a display of the deranged Thai 'elite' simply refusing to pay the judgment against them in international court... refusing to obey the ICJ's order to remove its troops occupying Cambodia... the laws don't apply to us! We apply the laws... to the little people!

Yinglak will undoubtedly just pony-up what the nation owes to the German company's creditors and this 'crisis' over Royal Thai Air Force 1.5 and 1.75 will disappear instantly. I hope she has the sense to simply obey the ICJ's ruling on Cambodia... and to exercise some desperately needed control over the rogue and rampant Royal Thai Army as well.

And I really, really hope she has the good sense and integrity to free ALL the Thai political prisoners and to declare that there will be no more political pogroms pending the recension of the laws criminalizing free speech in Thailand.

This is an excellent analysis

This is an excellent analysis of the decision, the statutes, and the constitutional provisions.

This analysis effectively exposes the court's thin reasoning. The court concluded that a secret trial "is a limiting of individual rights and freedoms only to the extent that it is necessary." Necessary for what? The court doesn't say.

The statute allowing secret trials says, "It must be for the benefit of the peacefulness and order or good morals of the people ...." This is the familiar magic phrase invoked at all levels of Thai government to accomplish whatever the goal at hand may be. For example, it is the basis given for censoring movies. It is a very low standard, and to apply it to quash a constitutional right -- especially a right as significant as the right to a public trial -- is absurd and ominous.

As Elizabeth notes, the right to a public trial is not only a right of defendants, but a right of the public to have access to the proceedings of courts (civil and criminal). In the U.S., the news media routinely demand access to court proceedings and files -- and they are routinely allowed such access (except to juvenile criminal proceedings, which are closed to protect the juvenile defendant's privacy). Access is denied exceedingly rarely (in cases of protecting classified secrets that genuinely affect national security). Where are the Thai media demanding that LM trials be open to the public?

The Faculty of Law, Thammasat

The Faculty of Law, Thammasat University, located in the historic district of Bangkok from the Chao Praya River and the Grand Palais, was founded in 1934 by Pridi, former student at the Sorbonne, after the establishment of constitutional monarchy.
In 1988, with the cooperation of French authorities, the Centre for the Study of French law (CEDF), a unique institution in the country that has the dual mission of contributing to legal thinking in Thailand, including the promotion of the law French, and develop dialogue and cooperation between legal systems French and Thai .

Thai law is based on French law
Thai law has always been partly inspired by French law in three areas: civil law, administrative law and criminal law, even if criminal proceedings are rather Anglo-Saxon influence. "Remember that the first Thai Penal Code, listing all the offenses, was written in 1908 by the French jurist Georges Padoux, at the request of King Chulalongkorn, says Professor Nontawat Nawatrakulpisut, current director of the CEDF.

While the modified code is still in force. "Thus, for over a century, the introduction of French legal thought in Thailand has fueled numerous exchanges between the two countries and contributed to the process of modernization and democratization of the realm.