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(New York) - Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s announcement of a brutal new phase in Thailand’s “war on drugs” raises fears of widespread human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. In an open letter to the committee that recently gave an “International Forgiveness Award” to the prime minister for his government’s treatment of drug users, Human Rights Watch and more than 50 other organizations called on the committee to strip Thaksin of the award.

On Sunday, Thaksin announced a new round of the anti-drug campaign that began in February 2003. Promising “brutal measures” against drug traffickers, Thaksin said, “Drug dealers and traffickers are heartless and wicked. All of them must be sent to meet the guardian of hell, so that there will not be any drugs in the country.”

Thaksin’s remarks suggest a revival of last year’s deadly drug crackdown. Between February and May 2003, some 2,275 suspected drug offenders were shot dead in Thailand in apparent extrajudicial executions. The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Asma Jahangir, expressed “deep concern at reports of more than 100 deaths in Thailand in connection with a crackdown on the drug trade.” During the first phases of the drug crackdown, the country’s homicide rate more than doubled.

“These latest developments mark a new low in Thai drug policy,” said Brad Adams, executive director of the Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “Thaksin’s approach to drug addiction merits disgust and condemnation, not forgiveness.”

The use of spine-chilling rhetoric to promote violence against drug suspects has been a hallmark of Thaksin’s drug policy. In January 2003, Thaksin stated, “Because drug traders are ruthless to our children, so being ruthless back to them is not a bad thing.” Wan Muhamad Nor Matha, the interior minister at the time, said of drug traffickers, “They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country.” In August 2003, Thaksin ordered a “shoot to kill” policy against people suspected of smuggling methamphetamines into Thailand from neighboring Burma.

Last month, the Italian Istituzione Perdonanza Celestiniana granted their annual “International Forgiveness Award” to Thaksin in recognition of his government’s treatment of drug users as “patients, not criminals.” The award marked a public relations boon for Thaksin, who has attempted to soften his image by referring to drug users (as opposed to drug traffickers) as “patients” in need of rehabilitation. In 2003, Thailand passed a law defining drug users as “patients” and providing rehabilitation to low-level drug offenders. Thaksin pledged to provide free treatment to 300,000 drug users while disrupting drug trafficking though tough law enforcement measures.

But the facts tell a different story. Throughout the drug war, drug users have reported beatings, arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention at the hands of Royal Thai Police. Some have been forced to sign false confessions stating that they had trafficked methamphetamine tablets. Others have escaped into hiding, or they have dropped out of drug treatment programs in order to avoid arrest or murder. Health experts fear a spike in HIV transmission as a result of injection drug users going underground and sharing blood-contaminated syringes.

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