© 2012 Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The Thai government should revoke a decision to shield military personnel from criminal prosecution for the 2010 political bloodshed, Human Rights Watch said today. A general amnesty proposed by the ruling party that would include those responsible for serious human rights abuses should be rejected.

On May 1, the director-general of the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Tarit Pengdith, announced that military personnel would not be held responsible for casualties during the government’s crackdown on street protests in 2010, despite overwhelming evidence that soldiers shot civilians.

“The Thai government’s decision not to prosecute military personnel for the 2010 violence signals that there is one law for the army and another for everyone else,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This amounts to a government policy of shielding – instead of prosecuting – soldiers who killed civilians on the streets and commanders who gave the orders.”

The Justice Ministry’s announcement follows a government policy stated repeatedly by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who is in charge of justice and law enforcement affairs, that soldiers and their commanders would be treated as witnesses to these incidents rather than defendants, and would be fully protected from criminal prosecution because they were acting under orders from the previous government.

At least 98 people lost their lives and more than 2,000 were injured during the confrontations between the opposition United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as “Red Shirts,” and the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, according to the DSI. Arson attacks in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand caused billions in damage.

Forensic evidence and witness accounts detailed in a May 2011 Human Rights Watch report, “Descent into Chaos: Thailand’s 2010 Red Shirt Protests and the Government Crackdown,” showed that high numbers of casualties among protesters, volunteer medics, reporters, photographers, and bystanders occurred in the areas designated as “live fire zones” by the government-appointed Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES). Most deaths and injuries resulted from excessive and unnecessary lethal force by the Thai army and other security forces.

The CRES, established by Abhisit and chaired by then Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, approved the use of live ammunition to contain and disperse the protests, but failed to take sufficient measures to monitor and control those military operations in line with law enforcement standards. A document signed by Suthep on April 18, 2010, later examined by Human Rights Watch, broadly authorized the deployment of sharpshooters and snipers to “protect security forces and the public.”

However, not a single soldier or official has been held accountable for the 2010 violence. The DSI announced in September 2012 that the military was responsible for 36 deaths. So far, only nine cases have been submitted to the Criminal Court for post-mortem inquests, and the court found that five victims were shot dead by soldiers acting under operational guidelines set out by the CRES.

The DSI and police investigations and inquest rulings show that insufficient efforts have been made to identify the soldiers and commanding officers responsible for the shootings. After receiving the inquest results, the DSI decided to charge only Abhisit and Suthep for killings. Based on the theory of command responsibility, which allows the prosecution of superiors for the actions of their subordinates, each has been charged with premeditated murder.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the politicization of decisions about prosecutions for human rights abuses. In an interview, Tarit reportedly said that, “DSI, as a government agency, has to follow policy of the government. Now the government prioritizes ‘reconciliation,’ DSI action will therefore reflect that policy.”

“It is ludicrous for the Department of Special Investigation to say it has to follow the government’s policy on reconciliation, which clearly compromises its law enforcement duties,” said Adams.

Human Rights Watch has also documented that some elements of the UDD, including armed “Black Shirt” militants, were responsible for deadly attacks on soldiers, police, and civilians. Some UDD leaders incited violence with inflammatory speeches to demonstrators, urging their supporters to carry out riots, arson attacks, and looting.

The UDD was supported by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister Yingluck Shinawatra is the current prime minister. However, the UDD leadership, including those now holding positions in the government and the parliament, have dismissed these findings. Some have asserted there were no armed elements within the UDD, despite incidents of “Black Shirts” and some UDD protesters committing violence with weapons being captured on video and in photos.

“Prime Minister Yingluck should be reminded that she came to power promising justice to the victims of political violence,” Adams said. “Any attempt by the government to manipulate justice by shielding the army or others will break her promise to the victims and the Thai people.”