(New York) - The conviction of eight police officers for crimes in anti-drug operations should be a catalyst for the Thai government to end police abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 8, 2009, the Talingchan district court in Bangkok found Police Captain Nat Chonnithiwanit and seven other members of the 41st Border Patrol Police (BPP) unit guilty of assault with weapons, illegal detention, and extortion. Each was sentenced to five years of imprisonment.

"The trial of Captain Nat and his team revealed just how casually police commit abuses," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This conviction needs to be followed up by clear action to put an end to police abuses once and for all."

Nat and his BPP team were arrested in Bangkok in January 2008 for serious offenses committed over a period of three years. To date, 61 people have filed formal complaints that they or their family members were abused by BPP police under Nat's command.

In the case that led to the convictions, Nat's squad arbitrarily arrested Jutaporn Nunrod in Bangkok on February 8, 2007, and then took her to a "safe house" at the Green Inn Hotel. She was stripped half-naked, subjected to electric shock, severely beaten, and had a plastic bag placed over her head for two days in order to extract a confession that she was involved in drug trafficking. Jutaporn and her family were also forced to give cash and a gold necklace worth 100,000 Thai baht (US$3,000) to Nat.

Other victims of Nat and his squad claim they were subjected to electric shock, had plastic bags placed over their heads, and were severely beaten. Many also claimed they were forced to pay bribes in order to be released or to have lesser charges filed against them.

"These convictions were not an isolated case of rogue officers, but part of chronic problems in police operations that use violence and illegality to fight crimes," said Pearson. "Police in Thailand have long had sweeping powers and have rarely faced punishment for often horrendous misconduct."

Thailand saw the worst police abuses after then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched his notorious "war on drugs" campaign in 2003. During this campaign, Thaksin openly pushed police to adopt unlawful measures against drug traffickers.

"There is nothing under the sun which the Thai police cannot do," Thaksin said on January 14, 2003, adding, "You must use iron fist against drugs traffickers and show them no mercy. Because drug traffickers are ruthless to our children, so being ruthless back to them is not a bad thing...If there are deaths among traffickers, it is normal."

In January 2008, a special committee chaired by former Attorney General Khanit na Nakhon found that 2,819 people were killed in 2,559 murder cases between February and April in 2003 as part of Thaksin's "war on drugs." But despite many promises by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to bring those responsible for the "war on drugs" murders and related abuses to justice, no action has ensued. Many police officers implicated in this inquiry and follow-up investigations by the Justice Ministry's Department of Special Investigation remain in office. Many have even been promoted. The failure to hold abusive police accountable makes it more likely that killings, torture, and extortion will happen again, especially in the context of drug suppression operations, said Human Rights Watch.

Thailand continues to face a boom in the use and trafficking of methamphetamines. For that reason, harsh measures against traffickers are politically popular. On December 3, Interior Minister Chavarat Charnvirakul launched a new nation-wide campaign, called "Clean and Seal." This campaign will initially go on for three months and seek to thoroughly "clean up" 16,106 communities of drugs users and traffickers. While traffickers will be arrested and prosecuted, those caught using drugs will be sent to a rehabilitation program at military-style camps run by the Interior Ministry.

"Unrealistic targets set by politicians, combined with deep-rooted police brutality and impunity raise grave concerns about this ‘Clean and Seal' campaign," said Pearson. "To prevent his government from going down the same road as Thaksin, Prime Minister Abhisit should set a new standard by ensuring that abusers will be prosecuted."