Uproar over the recent killing of a drug suspect by police investigators has revived debate on the need for a law banning torture and killings by state officials.
And the long-awaited move is now a step closer to reality after the House of Representatives on Thursday (September 16) voted 368:0 to approve in principle draft legislation outlawing torture and enforced disappearances for the first time in Thailand.
The bill, proposed by the Cabinet, has been tabled for House deliberation along with three rival drafts proposed separately by the House committee on laws, justice and human rights as well as the opposition Prachachart Party and coalition partner Democrat Party. The House panel’s draft was drawn up by a civil society group.
The Cabinet-proposed bill aims to protect suspects in criminal cases from torture and forced disappearance while in the custody of state officials, said Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin.
The draft bills represent a victory for human rights advocates following years of pushing for such a law amid regular allegations of abuse and impunity among law-enforcement personnel. The good news came just weeks after the globe marked the International Day of the Disappeared on August 30.
Earlier moves to pass similar legislation all failed. They came closest to success in 2016 when a draft bill endorsed by the post-coup junta managed to pass the first reading in the National Legislative Assembly (NLA). However, the law was sent back to square one after failing to gain NLA endorsement before the legislature was dissolved.
In 2019, the Justice Ministry withdrew the draft for review.
The main bill currently before Parliament got the Cabinet’s nod in June last year after being drafted by the ministry’s Department of Rights and Liberties Protection.
Amnesty International welcomed the development on Thursday, saying the delay in making torture and enforced disappearance a criminal offense “has sent a message to officials that they can carry out these violations with impunity”.
Parliament’s approval “marks the first time legislation on these crimes has reached this stage. This symbolic act shows that the government recognizes the need to protect people against these heinous violations and to provide long-overdue justice to victims and their families,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for research.
Thailand ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2007 and signed the UN International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2012 – but violations by officials have continued.
The UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances has recorded at least 91 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand since 1980, while at least 101 cases have been documented since 1992 by the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF), a Thai rights group that logs abuses in police custody. CrCF has also recorded at least 20 custodial deaths in Thailand since 2007 and almost 300 complaints of torture since 2014 in the insurgency-hit southern border region.
The four drafts
While all four drafts set penalties for violators, the main Cabinet-proposed bill offers the lightest punishment. It mandates a 10-year jail term and a fine of Bt20,000 to Bt200,000 for offenses of torture or forced disappearance of criminal suspects, compared to five-15 years and Bt100,000-Bt300,000 in the other drafts.
In the Cabinet’s draft, seriously injuring a victim carries a prison term of five to 15 years in prison and a fine of Bt100,000 to Bt300,000. The three other drafts mandate 10-25 years in jail and Bt200,000-Bt500,000 for the same crime.
Causing the death of a victim carries 10 years to life imprisonment and a fine of Bt200,000-Bt400,000 in the main draft. That compares to 15 years to life and a fine of Bt300,000-Bt1 million in the House panel’s draft, and mandatory life imprisonment in the drafts submitted by political parties.
Moreover, the main bill omits the offense of “oppressing human dignity”, which is penalized in the three other drafts by a maximum of five years in jail and a fine of up to Bt100,000.
All four bills also mandate that the direct supervisor of the offender receive half their punishment for oversight failures leading to the wrongdoing.
The main draft does not specify the statute of limitations, leaving this to Criminal Procedure Code, while the House panel’s draft sets no limit on the period in which a case can be brought after the event has occurred.
The separate drafts proposed by the Prachachart and Democrat parties include a 50-year limit for normal cases and unlimited time for “extensive and systemic violations”.
Also, all the drafts require the formation of a committee on preventing and suppressing torture and forced disappearance, chaired by the justice minister. However, the Cabinet draft decrees the lowest proportion of civil-sector committee members, at six out of 15. This compares with nine out of 11 in the House panel’s draft, and eight out of 15 in the party drafts.
In early August, the issue of torture committed by state forces made headlines again after shocking footage showed a suspected drug dealer being brutalized by a group of policemen at Nakhon Sawan’s Muang district police station. The clip showed station superintendent Pol Colonel Thitisan Utthanaphon directing his men to cover the suspect’s head with plastic bags, which resulted in him suffocating to death.
The incident caused public outrage and fuelled calls for police reform amid alleged attempts to whitewash the accused officers after their arrest.
Similar abuses have occurred at frequent intervals over the past decades in Thailand, albeit without being videoed. Victims included an opposition politician, ethnic rights activist, religious leader, Muslim lawyer, and a labor leader.
The first high-profile case was recorded in the early 1950s. Prominent opposition politician Tiang Sirikhan was abducted along with his three aides and driver after answering an invitation to meet a powerful police commander in December 1952. The five men were killed and their bodies burnt in secret, according to a court trial held seven years after their disappearance.
Sadly, the fate of many other victims over the years remains unknown.
In August 1954, Muslim leader and rights activist Haji Sulong Tohmeena disappeared along with his son and interpreter Ahmad after meeting Special Branch police in Songkhla province.
In June 1991, labor leader Thanong Pho-an went missing just days before his trip to attend an International Labour Organization meeting in Switzerland, where he planned to attack the coup-makers’ order to dissolve labor unions and restrict worker activities.
In March 2004, prominent human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit was reportedly abducted by five to six men in Bangkok. Somchai had represented insurgent suspects in the deep South and also campaigned against the government’s plan to impose martial law in the restive region. Five police officers were charged with coercion in connection with Somchai’s disappearance, but all were acquitted in 2015.
In another high-profile case, Karen rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen disappeared in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Phetchaburi province, in April 2014. His burnt remains were discovered in a park reservoir five years later.
The park’s chief Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn and three other officials were arrested in connection with his murder. But the charges were dropped in 2020.
In a rare case where a senior official was punished, former police major general Chalor Kerdthes was sentenced to death for masterminding the abduction and murder of a gem trader’s wife and seven-year-old son, in the notorious “Blue Diamond Affair”. Gem dealer Santi Srithanakhan had allegedly bought some of the Bt600-million in jewelry that a Thai worker had stolen from a Saudi palace in 1989. Chalor organised the 1994 kidnapping in a bid to extort the stolen jewelry. The woman and child were murdered and left in a crashed car to make it look like they had died in a road accident.
In 2013, Chalor was released on parole due to old age and illness after serving 19 years in prison.
Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service