(New York) - Five months after violent clashes between anti-government groups and state security forces, the Thai government still uses emergency powers to suppress fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 7, 2010, in response to escalating violence by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and other parts of the country. The Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation ("Emergency Decree") allows Thai authorities to carry out extended detention of suspects without charge; deny information about those detained without charge; use unofficial detention facilities, where there are inadequate safeguards against possible abuse in custody; and impose widespread censorship. While implementing the Emergency Decree, officials have effective immunity from prosecution for most acts they commit.
"If the Thai government has a legitimate reason to use the Emergency Decree, it should publicly justify it with hard facts," said Sophie Richardson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead the government continues to enforce the draconian emergency powers and violate basic rights."
The government extended the enforcement of the Emergency Decree on July 6 "to prevent possible violent or unlawful activities." Based on such vague justification, the Emergency Decree remains in effect in Bangkok and the provinces of Nonthaburi, Pathumthani, Samut Prakarn, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, and Nakhon Ratchasima.
The government has not put forward any justification for suspending certain human rights protections provided under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Thailand, which requires an emergency that "threatens the life of the nation" and says that the measures imposed must be "strictly required by the exigencies of the situation."
The government is systematically using the Emergency Decree to hold persons without charge for up to 30 days in unofficial places of detention. Human Rights Watch noted that the category of people subjected to questioning, arrest, and detention by the government's Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) has apparently been expanded beyond leaders and members of the UDD who directly took part in the protests, and now includes those accused of sympathizing with or supporting the UDD. Hundreds of politicians, former government officials, businessmen, activists, academics, and community radio operators have been summoned to report to the CRES. Some of them, such as university professor Suthachai Yimprasert, were arrested and detained in military-controlled locations immediately after they reported to the CRES. There have also been disturbing reports that journalists, photographers, and medical volunteers have been ordered to report to the CRES after they publicly stated that they witnessed abuses committed by the security forces during the dispersal of the UDD rally.
The authorities deprive those arrested and detained under the Emergency Decree of their right to challenge a detention before a court (habeas corpus). Moreover, unlike Thailand's Criminal Procedure Code, the Emergency Decree provides neither assurances of prompt access to legal counsel and family members nor effective judicial and administrative safeguards against the mistreatment of detainees, as required by international law.
Despite reports that hundreds of people have been detained and interrogated under the Emergency Decree in locations controlled by the security forces, the CRES has so far failed to provide information about the exact number of those detained and their current whereabouts to their families, parliamentary inquiry commissions, the National Human Rights Commission, and the newly appointed Independent Fact-Finding Commission for Reconciliation, led by former Attorney General Kanit Na Nakorn.
"The lack of transparency in the enforcement of emergency powers is deeply alarming," Richardson said. "When even the commissions set up specifically to investigate violence cannot have access to key information, the government's promises for justice and accountability lose all credibility."
Secret detention sites and unaccountable officials are a recipe for human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The government should immediately make public the number of people detained under the Emergency Decree, as well as their names and whereabouts.
The right to freedom of expression is essential for the functioning of democracy and guaranteeing other fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said. However, since April 7, the government has used the Emergency Decree to undermine media freedom and violate the right to free expression. The CRES has shut down more than 1,000 websites, a satellite television station, online television channels, newspapers, magazines, and community radio stations, most of which are considered closely aligned with the UDD. Human Rights Watch called on the government either to lift immediately the censorship and other restraints on the rights to freedom of expression of online and broadcast media, or to bring appropriate charges against the media operators for incitement of violence under the criminal code in accordance with international law.
"Thailand's ongoing restrictions on free expression through emergency powers are nothing less than a national regime of censorship, which obstructs prospects for lasting political reconciliation and the restoration of democracy," Richardson said.
During the political violence of April and May, which involved UDD protesters known as "Red Shirts," heavily armed militants linked to the UDD, Thai security forces, and pro-government groups, at least 89 people were killed and 1,898 were injured, according to the Public Health Ministry.
As a fundamental component of his "road map" for national reconciliation, Prime Minister Abhisit publicly endorsed an impartial investigation into politically motivated violence and abuses committed by all sides. Human Rights Watch urged that any investigation include acts of violence by UDD protesters and militants affiliated with the UDD against the security forces and civilians, including medical personnel and reporters, and the destruction of property. An investigation also needs to examine decisions by the security forces to fire live ammunition, possible misuse of force, and other alleged abuses. The Emergency Decree, however, contains broad-based immunity provisions. Section 17 of the Emergency Decree provides unnecessarily expanded immunity from criminal, civil, and disciplinary liability for officials acting under the emergency powers.
"Prime Minister Abhisit's ‘road map' for an investigation was a positive step, but so far has been little more than a rhetorical commitment," Richardson said. "The critical first step is invalidating the Emergency Decree's immunity clauses, which fundamentally undermine reconciliation, justice, and accountability."