Thailand, Emergency decree legalises torture chambers

Press release HREA – A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission, published by HREA, AS-024-2007, February 2, 2007:

A group of soldiers took Muhamud Arming Usoh from near his home on 30 October 2006, as he returned from work at a rubber plantation. They didn’t produce any arrest warrant or evidence, or tell him where they were taking him or why. The emergency regulations in force over the southern provinces didn’t require this of them. At an unidentified army camp, they allegedly kicked and hit him in the face and over the head with a steel bar; burnt cigarettes onto his neck, chest, ear and genitals; and, smashed beer bottles across his knees. Where the physical torture ended the psychological abuse continued: Arming, a Muslim, was allegedly chained to a dog for the night, before being taken to a bigger camp the next day. After the week was up, he was handed to the police and charged with murder and firearms offences.

While nobody knows the number of torture victims in the south of Thailand–most are too afraid to speak out–the Emergency Decree explicitly encourages military personnel to make and use torture chambers. This is by virtue of its section 12, that “Competent officials shall be empowered to arrest and detain suspects for a period not exceeding seven days. Suspects shall be detained in a designated place which is not a police station, detention centre, penal institution or prison and shall not be treated as a convict.”

The rationale for this section is that the person in question is being called to assist the army or police with their inquiries, and is not (yet) a suspect or an accused, so he should not be kept in jail or police custody. In practice, what it means is that soldiers and police are to set up ad hoc detention centres outside of conventional facilities and regulations. These are places that by their very nature are run beyond the ordinary functioning of law, where anything can be done without the scrutiny of other government agencies and officials, lawyers, human rights defenders and others. In short, they are torture chambers.

The security forces in Thailand are well-known for their use of such places, sometimes euphemistically referred to as “safe houses”. The Asian Human Rights Commission has received information and issued appeals on behalf of persons who claim to have been held and tortured by the police in private houses established for that purpose, sometimes to extract information, sometimes to get money, sometimes both. The UN Human Rights Committee in its 2005 report to the government of Thailand expressed concern about “widespread use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees by law enforcement officials, including in the so-called ’safe houses’”. It called upon the government to “guarantee in practice unimpeded access to legal counsel and doctors immediately after arrest and during detention”, access to family members and “prompt and effective remedies to allow detainees to challenge the legality of their detention”, including by being brought before a judge.

The emergency decree which has been in force since almost the same time as the UN committee gave its findings is an extraordinary step in the opposite direction because it has legalised what before was simply customary, and has removed even the limited safeguards that exist in police lockups and jails in Thailand. Those safeguards exist for the purpose of protecting detainees from abuse; in their absence, there can be nothing other than abuse. By ordering that conventional facilities not be used, and by mandating the use of other locations, the emergency decree is guaranteeing the use of torture, extrajudicial killing and forced disappearance, and allowing the perpetrators to hide behind multiple walls of anonymity and impunity.

If anybody in Thailand wants a lesson on the consequences of running informal detention facilities, they need look no further than Sri Lanka. In the 1970s and 80s exactly the same methods were used there, also ostensibly to combat insurgency. The consequences were mass torture, killings and forced disappearances: at least 30,000 persons went through army camps and never came back. Arrest, detention at “designated places”–which also were not police stations or prisons–and torture were intrinsically linked, as they are in Thailand today. The 2001 final report of the official Commission of Inquiry into Involuntary Removal and Disappearance of Certain Persons (All Island) stated that out of “some 654 complaints by persons who had been involuntarily removed or unlawfully arrested and detained” that it had received “most of them complained of assault and torture while under detention” resulting in lasting psychological damage. As in Thailand today, what most enabled the abductions, torture and killings there was the dismantling of safeguards and the confusing of responsibility for detention among the police, military and other agencies.

The continued application of the Emergency Decree over the southern provinces of Thailand makes nonsense of the government’s pretensions to favour the rule of law. It is the rule of law inverted, the defiance of all principles upon which rational states are organised. It is a gross breach of international law that has rightly been described by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings as making it possible “for soldiers and police officers to get away with murder”; to which we can add, get away with arbitrary detention; get away with torture; and get away with forced disappearance. It will do nothing for the people of Thailand other than lead them further down the bloody road that the people of Sri Lanka have been led since two decades ago; a road from which there is no easy return. The government must lift the Emergency Decree over the southern provinces now, before it is too late, and end the legalisation of torture chambers in Thailand.

(HREA is an international non-governmental organisation that supports human rights learning; the training of activists and professionals; the development of educational materials and programming; and community-building through on-line technologies).

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