Introduction: Protecting witnesses or perverting justice

Editorial board, article 2

Protecting witnesses or perverting justice in Thailand is the first in a series of occasional studies planned by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) aimed at examining in detail specific institutional obstacles to the protection of human rights and improvement of the rule of law in Thailand.

This first study examines Thailand’s incipient witness protection programme. It looks at the problems in protecting victims and witnesses of grave rights violations there, and the consequences for those seeking to obtain redress.

Despite the establishment of a witness protection agency under the Ministry of Justice, in practice, the police control most aspects of witness protection. As the police in Thailand are the main violators of human rights, the notion that they can be responsible for protecting victims is both unreasonable and contradictory. It brings to mind the Chinese expression that there is a choice between having the bear paw or the fish: the two cannot coexist.

The new Witness Protection Office needs to be strengthened and given far greater control over management of witness protection. If it is not, its purpose will be defeated, and the prospects of justice for victims of human rights abuses in Thailand greatly diminished. It is already in danger of becoming no more than a subsidiary agency to the police force and other more powerful parts of the bureaucracy. This must not be allowed to happen.

The study concludes that:

1. The Witness Protection Act be better defined and written;
2. Criminal defendants also be entitled to protection;
3. Clear criteria be set down for offering and giving protection;
4. The Witness Protection Office be given explicit power;
5. The Witness Protection Office be given more staff and resources;
6. Witness Protection Officers be given rigorous training;
7. Legal and medical professionals also be trained on witness protection;
8. Courtrooms be modified to protect witnesses;
9. More criminal procedures be introduced to protect witnesses; and,
10. The public be far better informed about witness protection.

None of these proposals should come as a surprise to persons interested and concerned with witness protection in Thailand, or for that matter, in Asia. However, it is alarming that at present they are not being widely articulated and discussed among concerned jurists and lawyers, human rights defenders, government officials or victims.

Despite its existing severe limitations, Thailand’s witness protection scheme is an extremely important initiative, and among the few of its kind in Asia. It deserves much stronger encouragement. If it gets the interest and support it deserves, it could become an outstanding example for the region. If it doesn’t, it will be swallowed up by the perpetrators, not defenders, of human rights.

Both domestic and international bodies have cause for concern and interest.

The government of Thailand, and in particular the Minister of Justice, must do much more to make the Witness Protection Office an effective agency. At present it does not have even half of the staff it was promised. It is obvious that it needs more personnel and resources from the ministry before there can be any talk of it doing effective work. This is a matter of policy decisions on the part of the minister and cabinet, not a question of availability of money with which to do the job. The principle of witness protection, although written into the national constitution, is still foreign to the political leadership of Thailand. This must change.

International bodies, bilateral agencies and overseas missions should all be offering support for the office. Governments with established witness protection programmes could be providing technical and material assistance. They have much to offer. Such exchanges would be very much in their own interests, as foreign nationals in criminal cases in Thailand also suffer from miscarriages of justice caused by the lack of witness protection and attendant problems. And for international agencies, Thailand has the right qualities for a successful witness protection model which could be advertised and replicated elsewhere.

International and local human rights organisations, university departments, scientific and professional groups, members of parliament, the National Human Rights Commission and above all, the witnesses and victims themselves, should all contribute to much-needed discussion on witness protection in Thailand, and offer whatever means they have to make it a reality. Public debate is essential if outside support is to be attracted, and the deep relationship between witness protection, human rights and the rule of law is to be understood.

Acknowledgements
This study was researched and prepared for the Asian Legal Resource Centre by Isabelle Ma Suen Hang, with assistance by Puttanee Kangkun and revision by Nick Cheesman.

The Asian Legal Resource Centre wishes to thank the Witness Protection Office, Ministry of Justice for its assistance, and the director-general of the Department of Rights and Liberties Protection, Charnchao Chaiyanukij, for allowing access to the office.

It also thanks Angkhana Neelaphaijit and Phra Kittisak Kitisophon for sharing their experiences of being given witness protection.

Dedication
This study is dedicated to Angkhana Neelaphaijit, Chaweewan Yuthaharn, Adirake Yimwadee, Phra Kittisak Kitisophon, Ekkawat Srimanta, Anek Yingnuek, Urai Srineh, the witnesses in the Min Min case and all other persons in Thailand who deserve protection.

May all unprotected victims and witnesses in Thailand get the security that they need, for the benefit not only of themselves but also that of their entire society, its courts, laws, and notion of justice.

Other studies on Thailand by the ALRC

Extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers in Thailand, article 2, vol. 2, no. 3, June 2003, http://www.article2.org/pdf/v02n03.pdf

Institutionalised torture, extrajudicial killings and uneven application of law in Thailand: A submission to the UN Committee on Human Rights, March 2005,
http://www.alrc.net/PDF/ALRC_HRC_Thailand_2005.pdf
Supplement, July 2005
http://www.alrc.net/PDF/ALRC_HRC_Thailand_2005_Supplement.pdf

Rule of law versus rule of lords in Thailand, article 2, vol. 4, no. 2, April 2005,
http://www.article2.org/pdf/v04n02.pdf

Thailand: Stronger institutions needed, article 2, vol. 4, no. 3, June 2005,http://www.article2.org/pdf/v04n03.pdf

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