Southern Thailand has been riven by violence since 2004. Source: Flickr
The Thai junta has dropped its controversial defamation lawsuits against three prominent activists, with rights groups saying it should mark the first step toward ending government intimidation, censorship and retaliation.
The Internal Security Operations Command, which covers operations in the troubled Malaysian border region, said it would end legal action against the activists, who accused Thai security forces torturing suspected ethnic Malay-Muslim insurgents.
Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: “This decision to drop charges against three activists is welcome but will be quickly forgotten if the military continues to interfere with human rights monitoring in Thailand’s southern border provinces. The military’s willingness to undergo independent scrutiny will determine whether this is just one case to spruce up its image or a genuine commitment to accountability.”
Last May, ISOC filed a criminal complaint against Somchai Homlaor, Pornpen Khongkachonkie and Anchana Heemmina, accusing them of criminal defamation and publicising false information online under the Computer Crimes Act.
The prosecutions were related to a report by the Cross Cultural Foundation, Duay Jai Group and the Patani Human Rights Network documented 54 cases of torture and mistreatment in military custody between 2004 and 2015. If convicted, the activists faced up to five years in jail.
The Convention against Torture, which Thailand ratified in 2007, obligates governments to investigate and prosecute acts of torture, HRW says. However, Bangkok has not prosecuted any security personnel for the torture of ethnic Malay Muslims.
More than 6,800 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the ethnic Malay insurgency and the Thai authorities, which govern the region with strict emergency laws.
“The right to file complaints about torture and mistreatment, and to have the complaint promptly and impartially investigated, is provided for under international treaties to which Thailand is party. In addition, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders affirms the prohibition against retaliation, threats and harassment of anyone who takes peaceful action to oppose human rights violations, both within and beyond the exercise of their professional duties,” HRW said.
Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act, adopted by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly in December, gives powers to restrict free speech and enforce censorship. It enables the authorities to prosecute anything they designate as “false” or “distorted” information.
Amnesty International also applauded the military retreat. “We commend the military authorities for their decision to drop the case against these brave activists. We hope the authorities will follow this step in the right direction by immediately and unconditionally dropping complaints and charges against other peaceful human rights activists,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s regional deputy director.
The rebel-hit provinces were colonised by Thailand more than 100 years ago.
The insurgents target troops and police, civilians seen as collaborators with the state and suspected informants.
Last Thursday a family of four, including an eight-year-old, was shot dead by suspected rebels, prompting a rally for peace by hundreds of Buddhist and Muslim residents.