ICJ: Thailand must immediately end prosecution of civilians in military tribunals

Thailand must end immediately the prosecution of civilians in military tribunals and transfer all remaining cases to the civilian courts, said the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) today.
 
On 18 November 2014, the Bangkok Military Tribunal convicted a political broadcaster, Khathawut B., of lese majeste under article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code and Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act, and sentenced him to five years in jail following a plea of guilty. The court barred observers and the public from the proceedings on the ground that they “concerned matters of national security.”
 
There is no appeal possible under article 61 of the Thai Act for the Organization of the Military Court so long as Thailand remains under Martial Law, which has been in force nationwide since May 22.
 
“Under international standards, civilians should not be subject to the jurisdiction of military tribunals, particularly where, like in military-ruled Thailand, military tribunals lack the institutional independence from the executive required by international law regarding fair trials. Thus, civilians convicted before such tribunals should have the right to a new trial before a civilian court,” said Wilder Tayler, Secretary General of the ICJ. “This case also highlights another very serious problem with the state of human rights in Thailand: Thailand’s misuse of criminal defamation laws to imprison people exercising their right to freedom of expression.
 
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) extended the jurisdiction of military tribunals over civilians after it took power by a coup d’etat and imposed Martial Law throughout Thailand. Prior to this, civilians had not been subject to military jurisdiction in Thailand for crimes not directly involving the military for decades, including during the state of emergency in place in southern Thailand since 2004.
 
Among crimes now within the jurisdiction of military tribunals in Thailand is lese majeste - criminalizing the making of statements that could be construed as defaming or insulting the Thai Monarchy. Such broad restrictions violate the right to freedom of expression guaranteed under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a state party.
 
Since the coup, at least 69 civilians have faced prosecution before military tribunals in Thailand on charges ranging from breaching NCPO orders, to planning a terrorist act and lese majeste.
 
Under article 14 of the ICCPR, everyone has the right to a “fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” The imposition of Martial Law, and the State’s suspension of some of its obligations under the ICCPR, including the right to appeal guaranteed by article 14(5) for cases heard by military tribunals, does not affect the applicability of this provision.
 
“All prosecutions of civilians before military tribunals must be transferred to civilian courts immediately, if Thailand is to comply with its international obligations,” said Tayler. “There is absolutely no excuse or justification for the use of military tribunals to prosecute civilians in Thailand, and especially not for simply exercising the right to freedom of expression.”
 
The Draft Principles Governing the Administration of Justice through Military Tribunals, set out principles that apply to state use of military tribunals.
 
Principle 5 states “Military courts should, in principle, have no jurisdiction to try civilians. In all circumstances, the State shall ensure that civilians accused of a criminal offence of any nature are tried by civilian courts.”
 
Further, Principle 2 states “Military tribunals must in all circumstances apply standards and procedures internationally recognized as guarantees of a fair trial.” Military tribunals must in all circumstances respect the principles of international law relating to a fair trial, even in times of crisis.