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On July 16, 2004, police from Kalasin's Muang district station arrested Kiettisak Thitboonkrong for allegedly stealing a motorcycle.

A week later, on July 22, his mangled body was found hanging in a hut 30km from his house. His body appeared to have been dragged along the ground by handcuffs, causing deep cuts on his wrists. Wounds and bruises covered his body, and his testicles had been crushed. According to the autopsy report, the 17-year-old Kiettisak was strangled to death about eight hours before his body was hung up.

The year before, when then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched his nationwide "war on drugs," he famously said, "There is nothing under the sun which the Thai police cannot do," and instructed the police that "you must use [the] iron fist and show them no mercy".

This approach has had a devastating impact on the rule of law because it further entrenched the impunity for police brutality that has plagued Thailand for decades. Now, breakthrough convictions in the Kiettisak killing in Kalasin, a province notorious for heavy-handed police tactics, promise the possibility of breaking that impunity but only if the Thai government is prepared to take a firm stand and protect witnesses.

Part of what has made the outcome of the Kiettisak case different from others has been the consistent courage of his family and the witnesses, who came forward to demand justice despite real fears of violent retribution. The Justice Ministry's Department of Special Investigation responded, conducted a serious investigation, and ultimately accused six police officers working in the Muang district police station of premeditated murder and of concealing Kiettisak's corpse to hide the cause of death.

The seven-year-long trial at the Criminal Court in Bangkok concluded on July 30, when the court found five police officers guilty of serious crimes. The court sentenced Pol Snr Sgt Major Angkarn Kammoonna, Pol Snr Sgt Maj Sutthinant Noenthing and Pol Snr Sgt Maj Phansilp Uppanant to death for premeditated murder and hiding a corpse. Pol Lt Col Sumitr Nanthasathit was sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder. The court found Pol Col Montree Sriboonloue guilty of abusing his authority to protect his subordinates from criminal prosecution and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Pol Lt Col Samphao Indee was acquitted because of insufficient evidence.

This verdict is monumental because it reveals heinous crimes committed by police officers while on duty, and breaks a cycle of police impunity by holding those abusive officers accountable. Until these convictions, the police in Kalasin had been untouchable. In most cases, their crimes had been ignored throughout the Royal Thai Police's chain of command.

The murder of Kiettisak was not a unique incident, though, but an example of the chronic problems within police operations that use unlawful force and violate due process to fight crimes. The police have long had sweeping powers and have rarely faced punishment for often horrendous misconduct.

The police in Kalasin are well-known for their ruthlessness. Kiettisak's case resulted in the first prosecution of more than 20 extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by police officers of the same station in Kalasin during 2003 and 2005. No one has been held responsible for any of those other deaths.

Suspected criminals and drug traffickers told Human Rights Watch about being tortured in custody by the Kalasin police to force them to confess. Some said they were pressured by the police to leave their home villages or else face arrest or execution. Other criminal suspects were gunned down shortly after the police blacklisted their names and their deaths were recorded by the police as indicators of their success in fighting crime.

It is not surprising, then, that Kiettisak's aunt, Pikul Phromchan, and two other key witnesses faced a series of retaliatory actions designed to intimidate them, even as they lived under the Justice Ministry's witness protection programme during the seven years of this trial.

But what is profoundly disturbing is that after the conclusion of the trial, the safety of all three witnesses is now hanging by a thread. In an unbelievable display of reckless indifference to life and a basic failure of common sense, at the time of the reading of the verdict, the witnesses were informed that their witness protection cover was being discontinued because the case had come to a close. To make matters worse, the court decided to grant bail to these uniformed killers, despite the fact that the verdict stated that they had committed brutal crimes and intimidated witnesses.

Ms Pikul told Human Rights Watch that she believed, as the case moves to the Appeal Court, that those police officers have every incentive to make sure that the three witnesses will not be able to testify against them again.

The police reign of terror in Kalasin is far from over when abusive officers remain at large and witnesses are left totally unprotected by the authorities.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra needs to give urgent attention to this case. She should publicly state her concern and follow through to ensure that the three witnesses immediately get the protection they clearly need. Then, she should show her determination to end police impunity by opening comprehensive and serious investigations into all the other killings related to police operations in Kalasin.

During his "war on drugs," Thaksin likely envisioned Kalasin as a blueprint for police all across Thailand to adopt heavy-handed measures. Now it falls on his sister and her government to undo the damage and end police impunity, starting in Kalasin.

Sunai Phasuk is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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