A wreath placed at the court's gate during the protest on 9 March 2021.

Bizarre treatment of pro-democracy protesters raises concerns

The court’s rejection of bail for 4 pro-democracy activists on 8 March is raising questions about procedural irregularities as 3 of them were taken from court before they were allowed the opportunity to complete bail requests, while another was sent to a prison other than the one designated by the court.

Artwork portraits of those who are under detention and imprisonment due to participating in the protests and lèse-majesté case.

Panusaya Sitthijirawattanakul, Jatupat Boonbattararaksa and Panupong Jadnok, leading figures in the pro-democracy protests, who face sedition, royal defamation and other charges were quickly sent to prison pending trial without a chance to bid farewell to relatives and supporters as is the usual practice.

On the same day, Piyarat Chongtep, leader of the We Volunteer protest guard group, was detained on a charge of criminal organization and denied bail. The court ordered him to be detained at Bangkok Remand Prison but somehow this was changed to Thon Buri Remand Prison instead, causing public concerns over his whereabouts. 

Right: Piyarat Chongtep (Source: Banrasdr Photo)

The change was not announced and was only made public when the Human Rights Lawyers Alliance, a network of lawyers working on the protesters' legal cases, confirmed that its team successfully visited Piyarat on 9 March. Chaiamorn ‘Ammy’ Kaewwiboonpan, a pop singer, was also detained at Thon Buri Remand Prison instead of Bangkok Remand Prison as assigned in the court order.

According to a Bangkok Post report on 9 March, Corrections Department Director-General Ayut Sinthoppan said that Panupong, Jatupat and Piyarat were transferred from Bangkok Remand Prison to Thon Buri Remand Prison in order to “ease overcrowding”.

From the bizarre to concerns over legal process

The quick removal from court raised concerns over the court’s intention and suspicions that the court had somehow assumed that bail would not be granted. 

A Code of Criminal Procedure book attached to the court entrance gate as an expression of dissatisfaction during the March 9 protest.

Kritsadang Nutcharat, a lawyer overseeing the cases of 18 protesters on 8 March said such a quick transfer was new even to him and he has worked as a lawyer for over 40 years. He raised concern that this was “irregular” in his media statement on 8 March as it was so quick that he was not able to complete the bail request. 

He was invited to discuss his statement with a court executive officer on 9 March.

After the meeting, he told Prachatai that the court confirmed that the court had no presumption that bail would be rejected. The transfer was made quickly as there were parallel bail requests for Panusaya, Jatupat and Panupong made at about 13.00. The court denied these bail requests at about 15.30-15.40. The 3 were sent from the court at 15.45.

Kritsadang believes the transfer may have been done quickly for the sake of convenience or just an error. However, what is more important is the legal process in lèse majesté cases, which involve at least 58 people in 44 cases since the surge in pro-democracy protests demanding political and monarchy reform.

“I am afraid. I think it will be more difficult, because in this case, the court has said itself that it is a serious offence. Also, there are many measures to be used such as not allowing bail. A second is secret trials, meaning that when they [the courts] see that it is about this issue, when they examine witnesses, they will prohibit people from attending,” said Kritsadang.

“According to standards for hearing trials, a trial must be heard in open court. Unrelated people can attend. It is a principle guaranteeing the justice of the trial. It is written in legal principles and the Thai constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Thailand is a state party and which Thailand has ratified.  Everyone must have a speedy, open and fair trial.”

The Human Rights Lawyers Alliance has posted on its Facebook page that the change in Piyarat’s place of detention from the one in the court order violates Section 89 of the Code of Criminal Procedure commanding the officer to fulfil a court detention or imprisonment order exactly as the court rules. The attempt to cover up Piyarat’s whereabouts is also a serious violation of human rights which amounts to enforced disappearance.

The Alliance demands that the authorities act according to law and abide by the rule of law to create the people’s sense of trust in the justice system.

Noraseth Nanongtoom, a lawyer for the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) who oversees Piyarat's legal process on 7 March posted on his Facebook that the court will summon Piyarat, Jatupat, Panusaya and Panupong to hear about the misplacement of their detention place on 11 March.

Dubious modus operandi

The measures taken by law enforcement officers and the courts have increased in intensity and seriousness after Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha gave a clear green light to take heavy measures against pro-democracy protesters on 19 November 2020, a message repeated by Police Commissioner-General Pol Gen Suwat Chaengyodsuk on 16 January 2021.

Protesters hold mats, bracing themselves against the water cannons during the 17 November protest near parliament.

These signals have been followed by rejection of bail and disproportionate and unorthodox police operations to the point that their legality is being questioned, such as the, disproportionate degree of force used to disperse protests on 31 December and 10 January when the riot police outnumbered the protesters and forcefully dispersed the protests after a short period of time.

Other examples are not letting anyone immediately know of the fate or whereabouts of those who have been arrested, such as the case of Sirichai Natueng on 13 January, when police switched the place of detention while misinforming his friends, or the case of Thotsathep, a volunteer guard who was mysteriously arrested in 15 January and two days later found in detention at Bang Kaew Police Station. Thotsathep was being held incommunicado until he was found.

Detention outside the area of arrest is also a serious issue. Many protesters have been taken from protest sites for detention and investigation at the Border Patrol Police (BPP) Region 1 headquarters in Pathum Thani, about an hour’s drive from central Bangkok. There is no legal provision allowing the police to do this since the withdrawal of the severe state of emergency which was in force from 15 to 21 October 2020.

According to the Code of Criminal Procedure, investigation must be conducted at the police station that oversees the location the alleged offence. The use of BPP Region 1 has caused protesters, their relatives and lawyers unnecessary difficulties in reaching them.

Yaowalak Anuphan, Director of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a group of human rights lawyers whose staff and volunteer lawyers have been travelling to BPP Region 1 to provide legal assistance, said in January that the police have no legal provision allowing them to investigate people anywhere outside the police station which oversees the location of the incident.

The brighter side is that, since February, police at BPP Region 1 have reportedly refrained from seizing lawyers’ mobile phones, an act which lawyers find violating. Further changes in the rules cannot be predicted.

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