Human Rights Groups Seek Justice for Thai Dissidents

On May 22, the one-year anniversary of the coup that brought Army general Prayuth Chan-ocha to power in Thailand, handfuls of university students in Bangkok and the northern city of Khon Kaen held peaceful demonstrations advocating community rights and democracy.

That may have been a mistake. The National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta now calls itself, has come down hard on 14 of the students, charging them with sedition, which could carry as much as seven years in prison as well as an additional six-month prison term and a fine of up to 10,000 baht (US$296) for breaching the ban on public assembly. Some of the students in Bangkok were dragged to a local police station where at least three were punched and kicked. Three were subsequently hospitalized.

And, not only is there no letup on the circumscription of rights of students and any other protesters who might rise, the junta is quite comfortable in its role. Last week, when the US State Department issued its annual human rights report, which criticized the curtailment of rights, Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the major general who acts as spokesman for the junta, instead suggested that US officials be summoned to explain the basis for the report. Thailand, he said, has placed the utmost importance on the real situation and the “restoration of peace and happiness.”

The students are now held in Bangkok jails while they await trial in military courts, which have earned universal criticism from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs, although with no discernible effect on the military leaders who have taken over Thailand. At least 25 military courts are operating across the country.

Amnesty International has accused the Thai authorities of “using the courts to silence dissent and make an example of those who voice opposition against military rule.” Civilians convicted in Thai military courts have no right of appeal to higher courts, which is contrary to international law. There is no right to habeas corpus. The military can use the pretrial period to obtain evidence before the suspect has even appeared before a tribunal.

Defendants have no right to counsel. Note-taking is banned in the courtroom. Often cases are prosecuted in secret. The courts are not accessible to relatives or rights activists. Requests for temporary release are almost never granted, with the authorities citing the political nature of the cases as the reason for the denial.

The military court is a single-tiered system. Based on cases which have already been adjudicated, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the military courts tend to impose much harsher sanctions than civilian courts.

“This forces civilian defendants to choose to plead guilty to the charges rather than to fight them,” according to the Thai Lawyers group. “In addition, no effort is made to explore the background of the accused persons, which should be examined for the possible reduction of sentences. Concern about the harsh and unjust practices of the military courts has pressured people to flee and live in exile.”

“Thai authorities should immediately drop all charges and release unconditionally 14 student activists who peacefully expressed opposition to military rule,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement by Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “While insisting they aren’t dictators, the Thai generals have used the military courts as a central feature of their crackdown against peaceful criticism and political dissent.”

Since the May 2014 coup, the junta has banned political gatherings of more than five people. The authorities have arrested at least 80 people for organizing or taking part in such public gatherings. In addition hundreds of people, mostly political dissidents and critics of the NCPO, have been sent to trials in military courts since the coup although international human rights law prohibits governments from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts are functioning.

The use of military courts in Thailand also fails to meet international fair trial standards under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors state compliance with the covenant, has stated on the right to a fair trial that “the trial of civilians in military or special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned.”

This is particularly problematic in Thailand where every element of military courts functions within the Defense Ministry’s chain of command, the UN Human Rights Committee said.

“With each new arrest, Thailand’s path toward democracy is getting harder to find,” Adams said. “Governments around the world should press the junta to end repression and respect fundamental rights.”

The United Nations Human Rights Office for South East Asia also has urged the government to drop criminal charges against the students and release them from custody.

On 23 May 2014, a day after the coup d’état, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights publicly expressed serious concern about the restrictions on fundamental freedoms imposed by the NCPO, adding that freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are particularly important in resolving difficult political issues through dialogue and debate. Now more than one year on, despite pledges by the Government to promptly restore the rule of law, restrictions on fundamental freedoms remain in place.