(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately and impartially investigate the alleged torture of an opposition activist in military custody, Human Rights Watch said today. “Red Shirt” activist Kritsuda Khunasen, 27, was secretly detained without charge at an unidentified military camp from May 27 to June 24, 2014.
Kritsuda, in a video interview released on August 2, alleged that soldiers beat her during interrogation and suffocated her with a plastic bag over her head until she lost consciousness. On August 3 the junta blocked access to the interview on YouTube and to an English language article about her case.
“The Thai junta’s alleged torture of a detained activist is further cause for alarm that rights protections are not on the military’s agenda,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Only by promptly investigating Kritsuda’s allegations and prosecuting those responsible can the junta undo its knee-jerk denial of her serious charges.”
The Thai junta’s response to Kritsuda’s allegations has been dismissive, raising broader concerns for the authorities’ treatment of all detainees. On August 3, Col. Winthai Suvaree, spokesman for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said that “Kritsuda was not mistreated while in military custody,” and that her allegations were “groundless without any supporting evidence.” The deputy National Police chief, Somyot Phumpanmuang, said police would investigate to see whether the circulation of Kritsuda’s video interview broke any Thai laws.
On the evening of May 27, soldiers from the 14th Military Circle arrested Kritsuda during a raid of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the Red Shirts, in Muang district in Chonburi province.
In the interview, remotely conducted via Skype, Kritsuda said she was blindfolded and put in a car heading to an unknown military camp in Bangkok:
They used my scarf to blindfold me. I recognized that I was taken to Bangkok when I heard the driver pay the expressway toll. Then I heard the driver stopping at a checkpoint. It was a military camp. The driver told soldiers at the checkpoint that he was dropping off a “parcel.” He referred to me as a “parcel.”
Kritsuda said that she was put in a room to rest overnight: “The room was guarded by soldiers. I could hear the sound of their boots. I could also hear the sound of soldiers doing exercise the next morning.” She described her interrogation:
Soldiers first told me that they just wanted to have a talk with me and would then let me go.... But what happened was not a talk. I was interrogated.… When the scarf they used to blindfold me came loose, a female soldier was told to tighten it and wrap duct tape around my head on top of the scarf. That completely blinded my sight. I could not tell if it was night or day anymore. I was kept like that while being interrogated. My hands were also tied. One of the soldiers told me, “Sister. You would not get out of this place alive if you see our faces.”
Kritsuda said she was slapped, punched, and suffocated during the interrogation:
The first morning when they started to question me, I was slapped in the face. That was how it began.… After that, when I could not give them information they wanted, they slapped me and punched me. But that did not compare to the most brutal thing those soldiers did to me. They put a plastic bag over my head and wrapped a piece of cloth around it to suffocate me. I felt as if I was dead before they let me breathe again. They did that to me again and again until I passed out.
Kritsuda said that a female soldier had to take off her pants when she went to the toilet because her hands remained tied during the detention:
I was allowed to have shower a couple times. While a female soldier stripped me naked and gave me a shower, I heard male voices near me. I felt I was sexually harassed. I told those soldiers I could take care of myself. But they said they had not received an order to untie me.
After seven days, the limit of an administrative detention under martial law, Kritsuda said the authorities ordered her to write a letter saying that she volunteered to stay in military custody. Then on June 23, she said, several senior military officers came to meet her at the military camp. She said Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, leader of the NCPO spokesperson team, told her she would be interviewed by army-owned TV Channel 5 and to “say the right thing to make the military look good.” The footage, which was broadcast nationwide on the evening of June 23, shows Kritsuda saying that she volunteered to be in military custody and was “happier than any words can say.” In his August 3 response to Kritsuda’s allegations, the NCPO spokesman Winthai claimed that Kritsuda “was genuinely happy” during the interview.
Kritsuda was freed without charge on June 24 after a considerable domestic and international outcry for her release. She has since stated that she had been living in fear and could not give her account until she could leave Thailand. She is now in Europe seeking asylum.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised serious concerns regarding the Thai junta’s use of arbitrary arrest and secret military detention. Since the May 22 coup, the NCPO has detained more than 300 ruling party and opposition politicians, activists, journalists, and people accused of supporting the deposed government, disrespecting or offending the monarchy, or being involved in anti-coup protests and activities. The NCPO has placed those people in incommunicado lockup in unofficial detention sites, such as military camps. The risk of enforced disappearances, torture, and other ill-treatment significantly increases when detainees are held incommunicado in unofficial military detention.
On June 24 the NCPO announced that everyone being held without charge in military custody had been released, but it has never provided information about those supposedly released. Instead, the military authorities have continued to arbitrarily arrest and detain people despite publicly asserting that the practice has stopped. The authorities have continued to summon a wide range of people for questioning, at times leading to arbitrary arrest.
The military has also arrested people in their homes without warrants in Bangkok and other provinces. For instance, on July 30, soldiers took Dachai Uchukosolkarn, leader of Phalang Prathet Thai Party, from his home in Lampang province. He remains unaccounted for.
The authorities typically compel those released from military detention to sign an agreement that they will not make political comments, become involved in political activities, or travel overseas without NCPO permission. Failure to comply is punishable by a new round of detention, a sentence of up to two years in prison, and a fine of 40,000 baht (US$1,250).
The junta leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has given repeated public assurances that detainees would be safe in military custody. On July 25, he said in a televised speech: “The NCPO would like to ask the international community to understand that we have never committed serious human rights violations. We have no policy to assault, kill, torture, rape, or harm anyone.”
Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the permanent secretary of the Thai Foreign Ministry told the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 12 that most of the people summoned by the military authorities had already been released, and that no one had been held for more than a week. The NCPO has contended that incommunicado detention is necessary to allow detainees to “cool off and adjust their attitude” without disruption from outsiders.
The alleged torture of Kritsuda highlights the concerns raised by the junta’s enactment on July 22 of an interim constitution that exempts the NCPO and anyone acting on its behalf from all liabilities for abuses. Under international law and United Nations principles on the right to a remedy for human rights violations, governments have the duty to investigate allegations of serious human rights violations and prosecute those responsible.
“Kritsuda’s alleged torture is a test case for the Thai junta’s commitment to respect human rights and ensure justice for victims of abuse,” Adams said. “Will the junta respond with a serious investigation or will there be more cover-ups and stonewalling?”