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(New York) - The Thai Army should instruct its officers to provide crucial evidence to a court conducting an inquest into the torture and killing of Imam Yapa Koseng, Human Rights Watch said today.

Imam Yapa, a 56-year-old Muslim religious leader, was tortured and killed by soldiers during an interrogation session on March 20 and 21, 2008, at the camp of the Army’s 39th Taskforce in Rue Soh district, in southern Narathiwrat province (see the Human Rights Watch statement of March 26, 2008, “Imam’s Killing Highlights Army Abuse in South”). Domestic and international pressure prompted Thailand’s Army Chief, General Anupong Phaochinda, to pledge that those found responsible would be punished and to end abuses by Thai security forces in the south of the country.

A judicial inquiry into the imam’s death has been blocked by army stonewalling, Human Rights Watch said. On June 30, 2008, Major Wicha Phuthong, commanding officer of the 39th Taskforce at the time of the killing, testified to Narathiwat Court in the post-mortem inquest that he did not know who tortured and killed Iman Yapa, the names and ranks of the soldiers on duty at the time, or other relevant details. He testified that written records of those on duty were destroyed. He further stated he had the authority to grant permission for interrogation of detainees in the camp, but no one made a request to him to interrogate Imam Yapa.

“Imam Yapa’s case is a test for the Thai Army on whether it can hold abusers in its ranks accountable,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “General Anupong has put his credibility on the line. Will he allow a cover-up, or will he ensure that murderers in the ranks will be brought to justice?”

Testimony by a forensic expert on June 30 showed that Imam Yapa’s cause of death was blunt force trauma, including fractures of his ribs from the front, the side, and the back. Broken bones punctured his lungs. Bruises and wounds were found all over his body, including his eyes, forehead, and lips. He also had long abrasion marks on his back, indicating he may have been dragged on his ankles across a hard and rough surface.

Imam Yapa’s son witnessed the treatment of his father by the Army 39th Taskforce. He told Human Rights Watch:

“Soldiers took my father away at about 8 p.m. on March 20. That was the first interrogation. I saw them take him behind the camp clinic – not far from where I was detained. I could hear everything that happened to my father. I heard punching and kicking noises. I heard my father scream in pain. That went on for at least two hours. I was so angry that I could do nothing to help my father. When my father was taken back, I saw those soldiers kept kicking him very hard all the way. When my father fell down, they kicked him again and again. They were laughing. My father could barely walk when they forced him to get up on his feet.

“Then, about 30 minutes later, they came to take him out and beat him up again. I could hear my father beg them not to hurt him anymore. They brought him back about midnight. This time, they had to carry him back. I only had about 15 minutes with my father before the soldiers took him out again until 2 a.m. on March 21. But this time the light was on behind the clinic. So I could see what happened to my father. There were more than 10 soldiers hitting, punching, and kicking my father. I saw them hit him hard on his head. When my father fell down on the floor, some soldiers stepped on him and stomped on his chest. When they were done with him, my father could not walk at all. Two soldiers had to drag him by his ankles back to the truck. My father was still conscious, and he told me that it hurt so much. I tried to ask for help. I shouted to the guards to take my father to hospital. They did not even turn their heads. I stayed with my father until he died. Just before dawn on Friday, March 21 – about 5:30 a.m. – my father died on the truck where we were locked up.”

“No soldier has ever been prosecuted for abducting, torturing, or extrajudicially killing Muslims in the south,” said Adams. “Because the evidence is so strong, this should be an easy case for the Army to show it’s serious about addressing impunity.”

The torture and killing of Imam Yapa highlights the broader problem of ill-treatment of Muslims in Army custody during operations against separatist insurgents in the south. Although every soldier in the southern border provinces carries a code-of-conduct booklet produced by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), 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 – at district-level camps. They alleged that abuses continued after they were transferred to the Army’s main interrogation center at Ingkayuthboriharn Camp in Pattani.

The most common forms of torture and other ill-treatment reported were ear-slapping, punching, kicking, beating with wooden and metal clubs, forced nudity, exposure to cold temperature, electric shock, strangulation, suffocation with plastic bags, and piercing the detainee’s genitalia with needles. Lawyers and independent medical experts interviewed by Human Rights Watch report similar accounts.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised its concerns with Thai authorities that detainees in security-related cases in the southern border provinces are extremely vulnerable to torture, “disappearance,” and extrajudicial killing during pre-charge detention. These abuses occur under laws that allow detainees to be held in Army custody for 37 days without safeguards against abuses.

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.

Thai security forces under the command of Lieutenant-General Viroj Buacharoon of the 4th Army Region (in charge of Thailand’s 14 southern provinces) have launched sweeping operations in the past year that have resulted in about a 50 percent decrease in insurgent attacks. But violence has flared up again over the past three weeks, particularly in Narathiwat and Pattani provinces, where there have been many reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings by security personnel. Insurgents have said that continuing attacks were in response to violence and abuses committed by Thai security forces.

“Ongoing abuses by Thai security forces and the culture of impunity have created a fertile breeding ground for insurgents to recruit new members and justify their campaign of violence,” said Adams. “The Thai authorities have the responsibility to restore peace and stability in the south, but they must do so in accordance with human rights standards.”

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