Interrogating injustice; Make way for the rule of law

Supara Janchitfah, Correspondent, Bangkok Post

(Two articles published in the Bangkok Post on 10 July 2005: republished with grateful acknowledgment of the author and publisher.)

Interrogating injustice

International covenants stipulate that police suspects shall not be subjected to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, but a growing mound of evidence suggests that some Thai authorities are ignoring this dictate

Anyone who has ever watched a Hollywood detective movie is familiar with the refrain which is always recited when the “bad guys” are finally captured: “You have the right to remain silent.

“Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.

“You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you during questioning.

“If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you, if you wish.”

These sentences came from the US Miranda Law, which has as its purpose to neutralise the distinct psychological disadvantages that suspects are under when dealing with police. Unfortunately, people who are arrested as suspects of any crime in Thailand never hear anything like this, and the experiences of some of them suggest that they have no rights at all.

Ekkawat Srimanta was arrested in Ayutthaya province one November evening in 2004. He left his workplace about six, and later that evening he was stopped while driving his motorcycle because he wasn’t wearing a helmet. Police found he had no driver’s licence and arrested him and took him to the police station. While he was about to pay the fine a police officer asked him if he had lent his motorcycle to anyone that day. He said the motorcycle had been parked behind his shop the whole day. Then police showed him a golden necklace and an amulet which they said they had found under the seat of the motorcycle. Ekkawat said he was puzzled and had no idea how the valuables had gotten there.

At a recent conference on the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (or CAT, which Thailand has never signed) organised by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and many allied organisations to mark June 26, an International Day Against Torture, Ekkawat told of how the police had tortured him to try to make him admit to taking the necklace and implicate others.

“Police then took me to another room and tried to force me to admit that I stole the necklace. They said if not I would be hurt. I told them that I didn’t know anything about it. They slapped me.

“They took turns to smack and slap my head, and then as I still did not confess, they forced the air out of a plastic garbage bag and pushed it over my head. Then they began kicking me all over my body,” Ekkawat said bitterly.

He continued: “There was no air in the garbage bag and they kicked me until I felt that I was dying … and then I said I would confess. Then they took the plastic bag off and I did not confess. How could I admit to something that I did not know? They continued kicking me.”

Ekkawat told the conference how the group of police continued inflicting physical injury on him, slapping both of his ears and kicking him after placing the bag over his head. Yet he still did not confess, although he told them again that he would to gain a brief respite from the painful treatment. They took him somewhere else to hear the confession, but after he said he could not implicate anyone they resumed the torture, which became even more inhumane.

Not an isolated case
Ekkawat was transferred to Uthai district police station. There, he said, officials began administering electric shocks. At this point in the story Ekkawat was sobbing and trying hard to swallow his bitterness, in such severe emotional pain that he could not continue telling the audience what he had been through. His lawyer, Somchai Sukpuedkij, had to finish in his place.

The lawyer said he could not imagine that such practises were still in existence in the present day. It was Somchai who finally put an end to Ekkawat’s ordeal and got him released from police custody.

The lawyer said that he regrettably had been busy on the first day he learned about Ekkawat’s incarceration, so he came the following day. If he had waited another day, said Somchai, Ekkawat might have been dead and his case counted as a suicide.

Somchai said that in his 20-year experience as a lawyer he had come across many suspects who had allegedly hanged themselves in jail, with police saying that stress was the motive for them taking their lives.

For example, two years ago a man died in police custody in Surat Thani. The NHRC conducted an enquiry and concluded he had effectively been beaten to death.

“He (Ekkawat) had more than 1,000 wounds all over his body,” said the lawyer. “I advised his employer to send him to a state hospital. Oh! That hospital was so kind. The doctor gave him a pack of paracetamol and let him go home.”

Somchai later took Ekkawat to a private hospital. A physical checkup revealed severe burns all over his testicles, penis, groin, and toes. He also had severe injuries on his back, thighs, cheeks, throat and eyes.

While he was in the private hospital the media received word of the inhumane treatment and Ekkawat’s case was put on the front page of many newspapers across the country.

“Ekkawat has returned from the thresholds of death. I admire his determination not to confess to something he didn’t do,” said Somchai.

Internal disciplinary action was taken against the accused officers involved in Ekkawat’s case, but there have been no reports of criminal proceedings.

In the very same province, Anek Yingnuek was allegedly tortured by a group of police on September 9, 2004 at Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya district police station.

Anek was arrested on a charge of robbery. To have him admit to the accusations and implicate others in the crime, the police allegedly beat him with pipes and nearly suffocated him with a plastic bag while kicking him, much the same techniques that were used on Ekkawat.

“Then they covered my ‘things’ (penis and testicles) with a bag of ice and electrocuted me through it,” he said.

Anek is still being detained at the police station. The policemen who allegedly tortured him and Ekkawat still come to the station and are frequently seen in a public park in Ayutthaya.

Unfortunately, there are many more well-documented cases in which police officers have acted in flagrant violation of Articles 9 and 10 of the ICCPR which have been brought to the attention of the NHRC.

Easing the workload
For some police, torture seems to have become a technique to make their job easier, to allow them to bypass the hard work of investigating and putting evidence together to make a good case. What’s worse, apparently the practice has been tacitly approved from some in high levels of the Thai police establishment.

A senior Thai police officer actually made statements in a prime-time television interview in 2004 to the effect that torture is acceptable. The officer, who was attached to the Police Immigration Bureau, said in the interview that, as police all around the world commit torture, it is reasonable that police in Thailand do so as well. He added that torture was necessary to extract confessions, and that “bad people need bad treatment”.

With this kind of mentality among senior officers, it is no wonder that it might be viewed as an acceptable practise by rank-and-file law enforcement officers.

Prior to the disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit, the noted civil rights lawyer, he publicly claimed that several of his clients had been tortured by police.

Makata Harong, Sukri Maming, Manase Mama, Sudirueman Malae, and Abdullah Abukaree were arrested on charges related to the looting of weapons from the Fourth Army battalion in Narathiwat province. On March 4, last year, Somchai sought a court order asking that the four be taken for physical examinations to determine if they had been tortured.

In his plea for the examination, Somchai stated: “The 4th suspect was blindfolded by police officers and physically assaulted, strangled and choked, hands tied behind his back and beaten with pieces of wood on the back and head. He suffered some head wounds. In addition, he was also hanged from the toilet door with a piece of rope and was then electrocuted with a piece of fork charged with electrical currents, on his torso and right shoulder.”

After Somchai went missing, several medical doctors, among them Senator Nirun Pitakwatchara and NHR Commissioner Prof Pradit Charoenthaithawee, went to the jail and examined two of the suspects and found out that they had sustained injuries as Somchai claimed.

A problem with the fundamentals
It is a well-established principle among all reputable law enforcement organisations in free societies throughout the world that confessions must be voluntary, an exercise of free will on the part of a suspect, regardless of the nature of the alleged crime. Why do some Thai law enforcers choose not to uphold this principle?

“We face a fundamental problem. It is the stereotype that a person who is arrested or who has become a suspect is a bad person and deserves bad treatment. It’s always been that way,” said Law Society of Thailand President Dejudom Krairit.

“In many cases, police want to finish their reports as soon as possible so they use torture as a means to force their suspects to make a confession,” added Dejudom.

“One of my friends who is a high-ranking police officer recently told me that he just bought an electronic baton. He said that he must use it to make people confess or admit what they have done wrong… Think about what went wrong in our society,” said Dejudom.

Some of those involved in providing education for the police admit that there are some shortcomings in the police training system.

Pol Col Nepparit Plipimine of the Samparn Police Academy said that the training at the school is partly to blame for producing some wayward police officers.

“We have more than 200,000 policemen and only about 10 percent of them have done something bad,” Pol Col Nepparit estimated.

“But I have to say that we have been placing too much emphasis on drilling them. The pressure makes some of them become ‘robot cops’,” he added.

“When they are students at the academy, they are just like a piece of white cloth. But when they enter into their workplace their environment changes. That is the ‘real university’ for them. Then they have to respect and follow their seniors,” he said.

He explained that police officers essentially spend their lives in their own company, beginning with four to seven years in the police academy and in the preparation school.

It is almost inevitable that they respect the seniority system and adopt the ways of the senior officers.

“I think we have to change the curriculum at the police academy, but I am too small to make the changes myself,” said Pol Col Nepparit.

Pol Lt Col Natree Chainupong, who also came from the Police Academy, said that most police are basically good and try to be fair.

“We need to support those who try do good things, don’t discourage them. They are ordinary people who wear the police uniform, but it is society that teaches them.

“Many want to do good things, but the reality is that they are surrounded by the patronage system and the seniority system. How can they resist those things?” he asked.

Charnchao Chaiyanukij, director-general of the Rights and Liberties Protection Department, wondered how many police officers really respect the rule of law.

“I think many officers tend to think that the people whom they torture deserve it,” he said. “They believe the suspect is a gangster, or they may think the suspect is not Thai because he speaks Malay, and therefore doesn’t have any rights. They immediately assume that the suspect is guilty and they must make him admit it.

“Our Thai culture supports the abuse of power by some authorities. We must change this kind of attitude and make people and officials respect the rule of law,” he said, adding that now is the time for Thai society to encourage all people to appreciate the value of human rights.

This is the second part of a series on alleged violations in Thailand of the ICCPR, which will be the topic of discussion in Geneva in a meeting between representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and representatives from the Thai government and civic groups.

Make way for the rule of law

Until measures are put into place to end the attitudes which allow police abuse and impunity, Thai society will continue to suffer the consequences

“Have you ever seen the retaliation in a Chinese movie?” asked a taxi driver in Patttani, responding to my question about what went wrong in the southernmost provinces. His meaning was that at the root of the problem is the abuse of power by the authorities.

“If officials can kill, torture, abduct and detain many Muslim people without just cause and still walk freely, ‘they’ can do the same thing,” said the driver, referring to the southern trouble-makers.

The native of Pattani then quickly excluded himself from the group that is engaged in the bombings and killings which are bringing about the chaos in the South.

Unfortunately, power abuse does not only exist in the South, but also elsewhere in the country. A perception of police impunity and brutality has worsened the atmosphere in the country, as well as its reputation.

About 2,598 suspected drug dealers and users were killed during the first phase of the government’s war on drugs during February-April 2003. Out of the 2,598 killings, the police only investigated 752.

Of those, arrest warrants have been issued in just 117 cases, with police saying they are still interrogating suspects in 90 others. The remaining 1,639 cases have been dropped due to a lack of witnesses and evidence.

In addition, 19 social and environmental activists have been murdered or disappeared without a trace under suspicious circumstances since 2001, when Prime Minister Thaksin assumed office, and the government has done little to pursue their cases.

Although many relatives of those arbitrarily killed or arrested in the war on drugs, the southern unrest or elsewhere choose to suffer in silence, and some may choose to follow the rule of law and take the routes to justice provided by the 1997 Constitution, there are others who feel that they must take it upon themselves to do something. Revenge, in other words.

“My son told his friends that we have to kill police and soldiers because they killed his father,” said the wife of a man who died in the violent incident on April 28 last year in the South.

“We haven’t gotten any compensation, but they (policemen or soliders) get promoted,” she added.

Said National Human Rights Commissioner Wasant Panich: “The culture of impunity and torture permeates Thai society. These practices are undermining the country’s processes to achieve justice.”

He said that in principle and in word the 1997 Constitution prohibits inhumane treatment or any act that undermines human dignity. Moreover Thailand has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which has provisions concerning torture (see box). However, Thailand has never signed the more comprehensive Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and the country has no specific laws that make torture a crime and prescribe punishment for such acts, said Wasant.

For example, he said there is no specific law which prohibits taking suspects before the press to re-enact their alleged crimes, despite the fact that they have not yet received a court trial. This is an insult to their human dignity, said Wasant.

Moreover, there is no organisation to monitor the implementation of the Constitution and the ICCPR with regard to torture and inhumane punishments and no special organisation to receive and investigate complaints of right violations against the police. Wasant said this needs to be rectified.

He added that it was inappropriate that Ekkawat’s case was referred to the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC), as the NCCC is charged with deciding matters of financial corruption, not malfeasance or malpractice of duty.

“This will only prolong the case, as the NCCC already has too many cases to handle,” said Wasant.

Wasant urged Thailand to sign the CAT. “Then we will have a chance to formulate laws that respond to the international convention and the Constitution, which will also enable us to set up an independent organisation to enforce the laws,” he added.

How to stop the abuse
There is no doubt that at a certain level laws would be useful, but the problems of police impunity and abusive behaviour are very deep-rooted in Thai society. What can be done when those who are supposed to protect human rights become human rights violators themselves?

Lawyer Dejudom Krairit suggests that Thailand should start educating people about human rights when they are still young.

“We need to amend the attitudes and stereotypes of Thais. They must be aware of their rights and other people’s rights,” he said, adding that there are also weaknesses in police and military academies, as those institutions have never taught human rights either.

Narong Jaiharn, a law lecturer at Thammasat University, also expressed his concerns on the subject of human rights.

“Some universities have provided classes on human rights, but it is only an elective subject,” he said.

He said that many things have gone wrong in the Thai justice system and there is a need to educate and provide training for law enforcers and the public in general.

“There is an urgent need to train law enforcers to understand human rights, as well as to look at the people whom they arrest as human beings,” said Narong.

He also said that the CAT gives a wider interpretation on what should be considered as torture and cruel or inhumane treatment, which includes reducing a suspect’s dignity.

“In many cases, police may force the suspects to confess that they have committed a crime before the court trial, and then take them to a press conference. What can we consider about this situation? Doesn’t it reduce their human dignity in the process of interrogation?”

He added that if a person dies while in official custody, there must be a system in place to assure that there is an autopsy, and also that the court should appoint a lawyer for the dead person’s relatives.

“With these kinds of processes and measures, it might prevent some authorities from abusing their power,” said Narong.

He echoed Wasant’s words on the need to have a third party or independent organisation which is knowledgeable on the subject of torture to proceed in cases of alleged torture, to ensure that wrongdoers are brought to justice. Physicians should determine the situation, he said. At present, in any incident of alleged torture, people must file their own complaint against the officials they are accusing.

“However, the problem is how to ensure that suspects and relatives get protection if they file a complaint against police. Will the police investigate the case or just resort to more torture?

“The fact is that officials hold the power and some stay above the law. The justice system might end up benefitting only some groups of people,” said Narong.

Charnchao Chaiyanukij said that the Central Institute of Forensic Science, Ministry of Justice, should have more of a role in collecting information and evidence at the interrogation level in any crime case.

Some have also suggested the empowerment of the NHRC, which is regarded by many as “toothless”.

“The Thai NHRC can only investigate the case and send their recommendations to the relevant state agencies,” Narong pointed out. The NHRC in India has more power – its own interrogation team, and even the power to enforce the law, said Narong.

“In the US, whenever the police are suspected of abusing their power the case is placed under the jurisdiction of the state governor, and a civilian committee investigates the case. We (Thailand) have criminal laws to protect people from police abuse, but they have to be enforced,” he said.

Narong also expressed his concern about the number of the days that suspects can be detained at the police station for interrogation.

“The longer they stay with the police, the greater the risk of being abused,” he said.

At present, the criminal law allows a suspect to be detained for 48 hours. However, in the southernmost provinces, where martial law is enforced, suspects can be detained and interrogated for seven days without charge. This contributes to the public outcry to lift the martial law in the area.

A Muslim lawyer who asked not to be named gave an example: “A suspect was held for questioning at a military camp in Pattani for seven days. His interrogators got nothing they considered useful to press charges against him and he was released.

“But when he stepped out the front door of the military camp, he was again arrested by the police and interrogated for another seven days.”

Certainly this kind of treatment has some consequences, said the lawyer.

“Imagine how much bitterness you would have if you were detained and interrogated again and again when you had not done anything wrong. In most cases, no lawyer is provided… Many might end up charged with a criminal act or treason.

“If these practices are allowed to run rampant, it will only bring about deep pain in people’s hearts. You have to imagine for yourself what the consequences might be,” he warned.

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