(New York) - Bringing to justice the killers of an imam detained by the military in Thailand’s southern Narathiwat province will be a key test for the Thai authorities, Human Rights Watch said today. Violence is escalating in the south, where the Thai military is fighting a Muslim separatist insurgency that has frequently targeted civilians.
The body of Imam Yapa Koseng, a 56-year-old Muslim religious leader arrested by the army on March 19, 2008, showed visible signs of torture, relatives said. Human Rights Watch said the apparent murder of Yapa highlighted the broader problem of ill-treatment of Muslims in Thai army custody during operations against the militants.
“Muslims in southern Thailand live in fear of the army storming in to take their men away to be tortured,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The army is fighting an insurgency, but that doesn’t mean soldiers can abuse people. And prosecuting troops for mistreatment could actually help calm the situation and rebuild trust with the Muslim community.”
On March 19, soldiers from the army’s 39th Taskforce in Narathiwat province arrested Yapa and five others, including his son, in Ban Kortor village, Rue Soh district, Narathiwat. Army spokesman Colonel Akra Thiproj said Yapa was wanted by the authorities for his alleged involvement in bomb attacks by insurgents in Narathiwat. The men were taken to the 39th Taskforce camp and locked inside a customized truck used as a detention cell. Yapa’s family went to the camp, but was not allowed face-to-face visits. Relatives could only shout from afar to talk to him and other detainees.
On March 21, Yapa’s family went to visit him again and was informed that he was dead. Yapa’s relatives saw his body later that day and found it was covered with bruises and burn marks, and his ribs were fractured. Yapa’s family members said they were told forensic experts were conducting an autopsy but were not allowed to see the report.
The next day, Thai army chief General Anupong Phaochinda, on a trip to Narathiwat, announced that a special committee would be set up to investigate Yapa’s death and promised to punish those found guilty. Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the sincerity of this pledge because of allegations by Yapa’s family that the authorities have pressured relatives to remain silent and not to pursue legal action.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed numerous Muslims in the southern border provinces recently released from detention at Thai army facilities who complained of being tortured, as well as lawyers and independent medical experts who have seen detainees during and after their release.
Many former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that after being arrested they were immediately tortured by interrogators, including soldiers in uniform and in plainclothes. The abuses continued after they were transferred to the Thai army’s main interrogation center at Ingkhayuthboriharn Camp in Pattani. The most common forms of torture and other ill-treatment were ear-slapping, punching, kicking, beating with wooden and metal clubs, forced nudity, exposure to cold temperature, electric shock, strangulation, and suffocation with plastic bags.
Every soldier in the southern border provinces carries a code-of-conduct booklet produced by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) prohibiting violations of human rights and due process of law. But Human Rights Watch said that ill-treatment and torture of detainees by forces under the command of Lt. Gen. Viroj Buacharoon of the 4th Army Region (in charge of Thailand’s 14 southern provinces) has increased since the launch of sweep operations in June 2007 in areas known to be strongholds of separatist militants.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised its concerns with Thai authorities that detainees are extremely vulnerable to torture, “disappearance,” and extrajudicial killing during pre-charge detention under laws that allow detainees to be held in Thai army custody for 37 days without safeguards against abuses. Viroj has enforced a special regulation prohibiting detainees from access to family and lawyers during the first 72 hours of their detention, when the risk of torture is greatest.
Thai authorities have the responsibility to maintain law and order and to bring to justice individuals, including separatist militants, who resort to violence or otherwise threaten public security. Such actions must be conducted in accordance with Thai and international law.
Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej held a crisis meeting on March 21 to discuss government responses to the deteriorating security situation in the south. After a cabinet meeting on March 25, Samak delegated his extensive security powers as ISOC director to Anupong, putting the army chief fully in charge of efforts to quell the insurgency. He made no mention of the urgent need for Thai security forces to respect human rights and due process of law.
Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government and army to immediately ensure the safety of all detainees; to provide urgent medical care to all who sustained injuries during arrest or in detention; to allow timely access to legal counsel and family members; and to launch a full investigation into allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
“The conflict in the south is now the deadliest in Thailand’s history,” said Adams. “The insurgents justify illegal attacks on civilians by saying they’re retaliating against abuses by Thai security forces, and the Thai army responds in kind. It is a deadly and pointless vicious circle.”
Human rights in Thailand’s southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and Songkhla have eroded steadily as a result of an increasingly brutal separatist insurgency, which has claimed more than 3,000 lives since resuming in January 2004. The militants have committed widespread abuses, including numerous bombings against civilians. In response, the Thai government has imposed special security legislation – including the Executive Decree on Government Administration in Emergency Situations and the Martial Law Act – and increased the number of regular and paramilitary troops to nearly 30,000 in the region.
Thai security forces have carried out extrajudicial killings, “disappearances,” arbitrary arrests, and torture of Muslims known or suspected to be involved with separatist groups.
While the Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Freedom Fighters), separatist insurgents in the loose network of BRN-Coordinate (National Revolution Front-Coordinate), have suffered setbacks in the last 18 months, they are still able to maintain their presence in hundreds of Muslim villages. The insurgents use state-sponsored abuse to justify their call for Muslims to collaborate and fight with them for the liberation of the predominantly Muslim provinces from the “infidels” (referring to Thai authorities and Buddhist Thai people).