(New York) - A new anti-drugs campaign announced on November 7, 2008, by Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat is likely to lead to serious human rights violations without major changes in policy and personnel, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to end punitive treatment of drug abusers, carry out major reforms in policing, and provide justice for the close-to-3,000 extrajudicial killings during a similar campaign in 2003. Thus far, there have been no successful criminal prosecutions.
"The prime minister says that this time around killings will not be tolerated, but the government said the same thing last time," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "Somchai's credibility is at stake here."
In August 2007, the 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 the "war on drugs" during the administration of Thaksin Shinawatra. After five months of inquiries, the committee provided shocking findings that 2,819 people had been killed between February-April 2003.
Many of those killed had been blacklisted by police or local authorities as suspected drug dealers. Police officers were suspected to have been involved in many of the attacks, particularly as many were killed soon after being summoned to police stations for questioning. For example, a 42-year-old grocery shop owner, Somjit Khayandee, was shot dead execution style in her house in Petchburi province on February 20, 2003, three days after she had been summoned to the police station. Local police told Somjit's relatives that her name was on their blacklist.
Police and other anti-drugs units in Thailand have sweeping powers and rarely face punishment for abuses and misconduct. The sense that officials will not be held accountable for their actions is so strong that abusive officials have sought promotion, fame, and financial rewards from the suffering of their victims.
"Many of the same people suspected of killings and other abuses in the last ‘war on drugs' remain in positions of authority," Adams said. "The government should prosecute and discipline those involved in previous abuses and institute reforms before asking the police to mount another campaign. Otherwise, more people are likely to be killed."
In a hopeful sign, Police Captain Nat Chonnithiwanit and seven other members of the Border Patrol Police (BPP) unit, who for three years used abduction and torture to extract confessions from suspected drug traffickers, were arrested in January, 2008, and charged with criminal conspiracy, armed robbery, forced intrusion, threatening others with weapons, detaining others, and abducting minors under the age of 15.
Victims alleged that they were subjected to electric shocks, suffocated with plastic bags, and severely beaten by these BPP members. Many also claimed they were forced to pay bribes in order to be released or to have lesser charges filed against them. Nat received large amounts of reward money for the arrests he made and had been praised for years by the Royal Thai Police as a role model in drug-suppression operations.
The public airing of details of these heinous crimes forced Thai authorities to reopen the cases of those arrested on drug charges by Nat. To date, 61 people have filed formal complaints with the Justice Ministry alleging that they or their family members were abused by members of the BPP under Nat's command. But it is not clear that Nat's case will lead to others, and the prosecution is moving slowly.
Chartchai Suthiklom, Somchai's advisor to the influential Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), said the new campaign would focus on a search for drug dealers. He said the aim was to reduce the supply to users between the ages of 13 and 18. He was quoted in media reports indicating that those caught buying drugs would have to take part in a rehabilitation program at military camps or be sent to prison.
Given Thailand's poor record with respect to coerced drug treatment, Suthiklom's statement raises serious concerns. Since 2003, thousands of people have been coerced into rehabilitation centers run by security forces without a clinical assessment that they are indeed drug dependent. Many have been held for extended periods of time - usually 45 days - in prison-based facilities, even if they are later referred to outpatient treatment. "Rehabilitation" is often provided by security personnel, with military drills a mainstay of the "treatment" provided.
Thailand's coerced treatment and rehabilitation policy has had long-term consequences on the health and human rights of drug users, as many continue to avoid drug treatment or any government-sponsored health services out of fear of arrest or police action. These fears are not unfounded, as many public hospitals and clinics share information about patients' drug use with law enforcement. With an estimated 40-50 percent of drug users in Thailand HIV-positive, this may keep drug users from accessing lifesaving HIV-prevention services and treatment.
"Forcing drug users into badly designed rehabilitation programs is incompatible with international standards requiring fully informed consent to treatment," Adams said. "Furthermore, fear of prosecution and harsh treatment will drive them away from seeking health care services that are theirs by right and that could actually help them."