(New York) - The recent arrest of a police captain and other anti-drug squad officers on allegations of serious crimes and human rights violations gives the new Thai government an opportunity to show that it can hold abusers to account, Human Rights Watch said today.
However, a statement by the national police commissioner-general threatening legal action against witnesses and other complainants calls into question the authorities’ commitment to ensure justice for victims of police abuse.
Police Captain Nat Chonnithiwanit and seven other members of the 41st Border Patrol Police (BPP) unit were arrested in Bangkok on January 25 for serious offenses committed over the past three years. The charges included criminal conspiracy, armed robbery, forced intrusion, threatening others with weapons, detaining others, and abducting minors under the age of 15.
“The arrest of Police Captain Nat reveals shocking details of systematic police brutality, corruption and abuse of power in anti-drugs operations,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is not just a problem of a few rogue officers; there has been a chronic failure to ensure oversight and accountability for the police.”
To date, 61 people have filed formal complaints with the Justice Ministry alleging that they or their family members were abducted and tortured by members of the BPP under Captain Nat to extract confessions for the possession and trafficking of methamphetamines. Victims alleged that they were electrocuted, suffocated with plastic bags, and severely beaten by BPP members. Many also claim they were forced to pay bribes in order to be released or to have lesser charges filed against them.
Despite these complaints about serious human rights violations, Captain Nat had been highly praised for years by the Royal Thai Police as a role model. He had received large amounts of reward money for the arrests he made.
In addition, Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by the reported statements of Police General Seriphisut Temiyavej, national police commissioner-general, threatening to take legal action against anyone he claims is filing false complaints against police officers. General Seriphisut stated that he did not believe that the number of victims in this case could be as many as 50 or 60 people.
“Thailand’s national police commissioner-general should be encouraging victims to come forward, not threatening them with legal action,” said Adams. “Seriphisut’s threats against victims of police abuse further fuel this vicious cycle of abuses and impunity,” said Adams.
Police brutality and abuses have characterized government efforts to suppress drugs in Thailand in recent years. Human Rights Watch documented extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations in the context of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s notorious “war on drugs”. Despite the killing of more than 2,000 people, to date there have been no criminal prosecutions of the perpetrators, many of whom are believed to include police officers.
Human Rights Watch said that the arrests of Captain Nat and his subordinates should act as a catalyst for the new government to establish independent and credible institutions that will be able to receive complaints, conduct investigations, and prosecute police officers for wrongdoing. The courts and other agencies, including the National Human Rights Commission, have thus far proven unable or unwilling to investigate and punish police misconduct.
In August 2007, the military-installed government of General Surayud Chulanont appointed a special committee chaired by former Attorney General Khanit na Nakhon to investigate the extrajudicial killings that took place in 2003 as part of Thaksin’s “war on drugs,” but no action has ensued. After five months of inquiries, the committee only gave to the government statistical details about the number and nature of the murders. Its report – which has never been made public – said 2,819 people were killed in 2,559 murder cases between February and April in 2003. Of those killed, 1,370 were related to drug dealing, while 878 of them were not. Another 571 people were killed without apparent reason. Despite many promises to bring those responsible for the murders to justice, this committee has been unable to subject anyone to criminal liability.
Thailand continues to face a boom in the use and trafficking of methamphetamines. For that reason, harsh measures against traffickers are politically popular. During the recent election campaign, the new Interior Minister Chalerm Yubumroong (who himself is a former police officer) and other leaders of the People Power Party (who publicly admitted that they were Thaksin’s nominees) vowed to launch a new war on drugs.
“Thaksin’s war on drugs was one of the most brutal and darkest periods for human rights in Thailand’s recent history,” said Adams. “It is chilling to think that the new government may go down this road again. Instead, this military-installed government should show its commitment to justice by prosecuting Captain Nat and conducting serious investigations into the 2003 war on drugs.”