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(New York) - Thai authorities are using emergency powers to violate fundamental rights and obstruct efforts to bring abusers to justice six months after violent clashes between anti-government groups and government security forces, Human Rights Watch said today.

"The Emergency Decree encourages human rights abuses," said Sophie Richardson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government has not put forward any legitimate justifications for suspending human rights guaranteed under international law and the Thai constitution."

On April 7, 2010, in response to escalating violent anti-government protests 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 the Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES), an ad hoc civilian-military body, to detain suspects without charge for extended periods; use unofficial detention facilities, where there are inadequate safeguards against possible abuse in custody; and impose widespread censorship. Officials have effective immunity from prosecution for most acts they commit under the decree.

The government extended the enforcement of the Emergency Decree on October 5 in Bangkok and the provinces of Nonthaburi, Pathumthani, and Samut Prakarn, based on the vague and overbroad basis "to prevent possible violent or unlawful activities."

Although the government informed Human Rights Watch on September 30 that no one was then being held under the Emergency Decree, it has withheld information about those detained without charge both during and in the aftermath of the UDD protests that ended in May.

The director-general of the Justice Ministry's Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Tharit Phengdit, has spoken publicly on many occasions about using military facilities to hold and interrogate suspects. On April 22, the CRES ordered the use of military camps in the provinces of Prachinburi (Jakrapong Camp and Promyothi Camp) and Kanchanaburi (Surasri Camp) to detain protesters.

Human Rights Watch has learned that since at least May 12, the CRES has ordered use of additional military camps in Saraburi (Adisorn Camp), Ratchaburi (Panurangsi Camp) and Chantaburi (Panasbodisriuthai Camp), as well as Border Patrol Police facilities in Prachinburi (Naresuarn Camp) and Pathumthani (1st Region Border Patrol Police Command) to detain people accused of violating the Emergency Decree. It remains unclear what has happened to them or where they are now.

Military camps and border patrol facilities are not official detention sites under Thai law. The risk of abuse often significantly increases when detainees are held incommunicado in unofficial locations and under the control of security personnel who lack training and experience in civilian law enforcement. The Emergency Decree provides neither assurances of prompt access to legal counsel and family members nor effective judicial and administrative safeguards against mistreatment.

Abhisit publicly endorsed, as a fundamental component of his "road map" for national reconciliation, an impartial investigation into politically motivated violence and abuses  by all sides. However, members of parliamentary inquiry commissions, the National Human Rights Commission, and the Independent Fact-Finding Commission for Reconciliation, led by former Attorney General Kanit Na Nakorn, told Human Rights Watch that they have been unable to obtain complete information from the CRES  about security forces' deployment plans, operations of the security forces, autopsy reports, witness testimonies, photos, or video footage.

"The lack of transparency in enforcing the emergency powers is disturbing," Richardson said. "When even the government-established commissions set up specifically to investigate violence don't have  access to key information, the government's promises for justice and accountability lose all credibility."

Human Rights Watch urged the government to include in any investigation 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, the possible misuse of force, and other alleged abuses, including allegations by recently released UDD members that soldiers tortured them after the dispersal of their protest camps, Human Rights Watch said. In this regard, the government should repeal the broad-based impunity under section 17 of the Emergency Decree, which provides immunity from criminal, civil, and disciplinary liability for officials acting under the emergency powers.

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.

Section 9 of the Emergency Decree broadly prohibits "the press release, distribution or dissemination of letters, publications or any means of communication containing texts that may instigate fear among the people or is intended to distort information, which misleads understanding of the emergency situation to the extent of affecting the security of state or public order or good moral of the people both in the area or locality where an emergency situation has been declared or the entire Kingdom." Section 11 authorizes officials to "cancel or suspend any contact or communication in order to prevent or terminate the serious incident."

Since the April violence, the CRES has shut down websites, satellite television stations, online television channels, publications, and community radio stations, most of which are considered closely aligned with the UDD.  Most of these remain closed.

Thai authorities also use emergency powers to suppress the public display of anti-government messages. On October 3, police in Pra Nakhon Sri Ayutthaya province arrested Amornwan Charoenkij for selling slippers printed with the message "People died at Ratchaprasong," a reference to the site of the anti-government protests, and the photos of Abhisit and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban. Amornwan was charged with violating the Emergency Decree.

On November 19, just before the scheduled UDD rally to commemorate the crackdown at Ratchaprasong Junction, the army commander-in-chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, used emergency powers to issue an order barring the sale, distribution, possession, and display of rally materials such as shirts, photographs, illustrations, and printed texts allegedly aimed at causing disunity in society. Those found guilty of violating this ban could face up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of 40,000 baht (US$1,335).

Abhisit and National Human Rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara urged the CRES to review Prayuth's order, saying that it violates the right to freedom of expression and undermines reconciliation efforts. The CRES, chaired by Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, the defense minister and former army commander-in-chief, held a news conference on November 23 insisting that the ban would not be revoked or changed.

"The rolling 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 human rights and democracy," Richardson said.

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