Political dissidents recall ordeal in women’s prison

Three female political dissidents, two of whom were forced to undertake pelvic examinations, recall their ordeal in women’s prisons while human rights lawyers have urged the Thai authorities not to violate the rights of detainees.

Ladawan Wongsriwong, former Deputy Labour Minister, on Tuesday, 3 May 2016, urged Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader and Prime Minister, to enact orders to stop the Department of Corrections (DC) performing pelvic examinations on detainees who are not suspects in drug-related crimes, saying it is extremely humiliating for female detainees, Matichon Online reported.

“I’m worried that the rights of eight detainees, one of whom is a woman, who were arrested on political offences and denied bail will be violated,” Matichon quoted Ladawan as saying. “Gen Prayut should order the DC to halt and cancel rules which contravene the principles of human dignity enshrined under Section 4 of the Interim Charter.”

The statement from Ladawan reflected the recent public outcry over the harassment of Kornkanok Khumta, a student activist of the New Democracy Movement (NDM) from Thammasat University, who was sent the Central Women’s Correction Institute in Bangkok last month by the Military Court for participating in an activity to demand investigation of corruption allegations surrounding the construction of the military’s Rajabhakti Park.

The military prosecutors indicted Kornkanok together with five other activists on 25 April 2016. Despite the fact that the court granted her bail on the same day, Kornkanok was sent to the Central Women’s Correction Institute where she was forced to take off all her clothes in front of many people and to undertake a pelvic examination before she was released.

“I felt like I was an animal or something. The prison staff knew then that I was granted bail, but they didn’t tell me,” Kornkanok wrote on her Facebook account on 26 April.

Kornkanok Khumta

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), Theerawan Charoensuk, 57, an anti-establishment red shirt from Chiang Mai Province charged under Article 116, the sedition law, for posting on Facebook a picture of herself holding a red bowl with a Songkran message from Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister, experienced similar treatment in prison.

Theerawan was sent to prison briefly before the Military Court of Chiang Mai granted her 100,000 baht bail on 30 March. In prison, she said that she was forced to be naked and to repeatedly sit and stand in front of two prison officers to check if she had objects hidden in her vagina despite the fact that she had informed the officers that she had already been granted bail. The prison staff, however, did not perform a pelvic examination on her.

“It made me crazy. It felt as if I was in hell and it was as if I was already a prisoner. I never thought that I would experience something like that,” TLHR quoted Theerawan as saying.

She added that there is a strict hierarchy in prison, saying that detainees have to crawl on the floor and put their hands together in the gesture of a wai while talking to prison staff.

Theerawan Charoensuk

Another political dissident, Jittra Kotchadej,a former President of Triumph Labour Union and democracy activist, recounted similar experiences when she was sent to the Central Women’s Correctional Institute for allegedly not answering the junta’s summons after the 2014 coup d’état because she was in Sweden when the summons was issued.

Jittra was imprisoned at the Central Women’s Correctional Institute briefly in June 2014 before the Military Court granted her bail. She told Prachatai then that she was forced to remove all her clothes in the presence of many prison staff and was forced to undertake a pelvic examination.

“The process upon entering the Women’s Correctional Institute is like you are already a prisoner. It is a process which makes you a prisoner and treats you as if you are imprisoned for committing criminal offences,” Jittra told Prachatai.

According to the TLHR, procedures to search the bodies of female detainees forced upon them by prison staff violate the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules) as Article 51 of the Rules states that searches shall not be used to harass, intimidate or unnecessarily intrude upon a prisoner’s privacy.

Article 52 of the Rules adds that intrusive searches, including strip and body cavity searches, should be undertaken only if absolutely necessary and prison administrations shall be encouraged to develop and use appropriate alternatives to intrusive searches.

The TLHR added that under the normal judicial procedures of civilian courts, the authorities do not have to send suspects to prison while they are waiting for bail. However, in case of the Military Court, the authorities will take suspects to prison before they are released on bail and they are forced to undergo searches as if they are criminal prisoners.

Jittra Kotchadej