In January, three Thai human rights groups jointly released a 120-page report documenting the military’s use of torture against people in custody. Types of torture used include mock executions, sexual assaults, stress positions, extreme temperatures, loud noises, and intimidation by dogs. The report was based on interviews with 54 former detainees, many of whom were later released without charge. Following the report’s publication, the Thai army accused the groups of fabricating stories of torture and threatened to sue them for defamation.
“Ever since the 2014 coup d’état by the military junta, Thailand has taken a dark turn down the path of authoritarianism. Given the junta’s dictatorial agenda, it is no surprise that its military is overrun with accusations of torture,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen. “Threatening to bring defamation suits against those who tell the truth is a cowardly move. Instead of harassing human rights defenders, the junta must eliminate torture in detention to show respect for universal human rights,” Halvorssen concluded.
The Thai government has implemented special legislation in the southern border provinces that prescribes authority “to search, to prohibit, to raid, to arrest, to confine or to detain a person without a court warrant” up to 37 days if the person is suspected of being involved in national security incidents, although some have been held much longer. The report, titled “Torture and Ill Treatment in the Deep South: Documented in 2014-2015,” states that during periods of warrantless detention, detainees do not have to be charged with any criminal offense for their detention to be justified. They are also prohibited from seeing family members and lawyers, and cannot seek bail or provisional release. The Cross Cultural Foundation, one of the groups releasing the report, has pointed out that abuse in detention is rampant in the military because there is no accountability or oversight mechanism.
Within 24 hours of the report’s release, a spokesman for the Thai Internal Security Operations Command, a counterinsurgency unit created by the Internal Security Actin 2006 to maintain internal security, denounced the report and threatened its authors. Major General Banpot Poonpien accused the human rights groups of fabricating stories of torture to gain foreign funding, and warned that their appeals to international law instead of domestic processes may be defamatory.
The Thai military has filed defamation suit against human rights groups in the past. In 2014, the Army Task Force filed a libel and defamation suit against Ms. Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, for “damaging the reputation of the army by publishing an open letter exposing [a] torture” case. The suit was later dropped.
“Authoritarian regimes commonly use either civil defamation suits or criminal defamation charges as threats to silence dissidents and human rights groups. Defamation suits, while rarely used in democracies by public officials to reprimand criticism, are a popular method used by officials in authoritarian countries to punish those who dare to speak out against them,” said Javier El-Hage, chief legal officer of HRF. “The Thai junta is clearly following the strategies of other dictatorial countries by threatening to sue for defamation. As a state party to the Convention Against Torture, the Thai regime should eliminate the use of torture by the military,” El-Hage added.
Thailand has been under General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s junta rule since 2014. Despite claiming that he supports democracy, the general has shut down media outlets of the opposing party, imposed internet censorship, arrested peaceful protestors, and arbitrarily detained hundreds of activists, journalists, and politicians. Since the military coup, Thailand has gone from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” under Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index, with political rights and civil liberties rated at six and five respectively, seven being the worst possible rating.
Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. HRF’s International Council includes human rights advocates George Ayittey, Palden Gyatso, Garry Kasparov, Mutabar Tadjibaeva, Elie Wiesel, and Harry Wu.