The freeing of political prisoner Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, better known as Da Torpedo, and two other lese majeste prisoners in Thailand over the weekend from prolonged sentences to Thai prisons masks the fact that hundreds of prisoners have been pushed through military courts with almost no rights since the 2014 coup that brought the National Council for Peace and Order to power.
Da Torpedo, one of the most notable prisoners, and the two other women were ordered freed as a result of a royal pardon along with a total of 100 female prisoners, according to Weeranan Huadsri of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which has monitored arrests since the junta come to power.
Thailand has the most draconian lese majeste laws, or laws against insulting the monarchy, on the planet. People have been arrested for insulting Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s dog, among other things. According to the website Political Prisoners in Thailand, there are no figures on how many people have been arrested on lese majeste charges. In 2010, the organization estimated that more than 300 cases have been prosecuted since the 2006 palace-military coup that drove former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power.
Over the past decade, since a 2006 coup that drove Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power, followed by years of political struggle that ended in a 2014 military coup, a complex of laws – lese majeste, the computer crimes and others – have turned the country into one of the world.
Separate from the lese majeste charges is that nearly 2,000 people have been arrested and tried in military courts. In a separate statement over the weekend, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said the organization had obtained information from the Judge Advocate General’s Department that 1,811 civilians were tried in the Military Courts in 1,546 cases between May 22, 2014, and May 31 of this year.
As Asia Sentinel reported in February of 2015, the military courts bear little resemblance to civilian ones. They have been criticized by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs for holding suspects in custody for days without arrest warrants being produced, charges being pressed, or the locations of their detention facilities being publicized, leaving families frantic to find out what happened to their siblings or other relations. Many have been denied the right to speak with a lawyer or receive visits from their relatives.
There have been allegations that military officials have tortured detainees in order to coerce them into confessing while they are in custody. The information obtained has then been used to go after others named under torture.
Martial law is present from the start of the process, with the military arresting civilians and then relying on evidence obtained from them in custody, often by torture, as the human rights organizations charge. 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.
The 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 and the sentences they impose are typically much harsher than those handed out in civilian courts, forcing civilian defendants to choose to plead guilty to the charges rather than to fight them. 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.
Currently, according to the lawyers’ association, 517 cases are pending in military courts, with 1,029 having been adjudicated. Forty-four cases are concerned with violation of the junta’s orders, 63 are concerned lese-majeste, five appear to deal with sedition and 1,434 relate to offenses involving weapons and other arms.
Some 175 cases involving 275 civilian defendants have been tried in the Bangkok Military Court’s jurisdiction, there have been 175 cases with 275 civilian defendants. In other provinces, 1,536 civilians have been tried or are still being tried in 1,371 cases at Military Circle Courts.
Sentences in lese majeste cases are seemingly all out of proportion to the offenses although many have been halved or reduced after guilty pleas, or nullified by royal pardons, as Daranee’s was. Many speculate that the approaching death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has kicked off a tense behind-the-scenes for power despite the fact that Prince Vajiralongkorn, who is deeply unpopular, has been anointed as the king’s successor.
In Daranee’s case, she was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 for three counts of defaming the monarch in a speech during a Red Shirt rally in 2008. However, the sentence was not for what she said, but because Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and an ultra-royalist who led the so-called Yellow Shirts in a long cycle of violence against a constitutionally elected government, quoted her words in a separate rally. Sondhi was also charged with lese-majeste for quoting her. But in a separate trial, he was found guilty. The prosecution appealed and reversed the decision, sentencing him to jail for two years. He was granted bail and did not serve his sentence.
Freed along with Daranee were Pornthip “Golf” Munkong,an activist who was arrested in 2014 and convicted in February 2015, who along with a separately detained activist named Patiwat Saraiyaem, produced a political play, The Wolf Bride, about a fictional monarch and kingdom that the Thai authorities decided wasn’t fictional enough. Pornthip was denied bail several times but finally, with Patiwat, entered a guilty plea and asked that their sentences be suspended.
The third freed woman, Thitinant Kaewjantranont, a New Zealand woman, was ruled to be mentally ill by court doctors. Nonetheless, she was found guilty in 2014 and sentenced to two years in prison. The details of her case are unclear, according to the website Political Prisoners in Thailand. She was said to be detained in prisons and hospitals.