(New York) – The Thai military junta should immediately revoke its order to prosecute civilians in military courts, Human Rights Watch said today. The military should end its arrests of individuals engaged in peaceful protest or criticism of the May 22, 2014 military coup or the imposition of martial law.
The May 25 order grants the military wide-ranging powers to prosecute civilians without basic due process protections, and prohibits defense counsel and rights to appeal.
The trial scheduled for later this week of detained former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng and other civilians charged by the military junta should be heard in regular courts. Chaturon would be the first civilian put on trial in a military court in Thailand in decades. Chaturon has been denied access to legal counsel.
“The military trial of a civilian without a lawyer or means to prepare a defense is really no trial at all, but a travesty of justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Thai junta should immediately end its arrests of peaceful critics and revoke its order allowing the trial of civilians before military courts.”
Chaturon was arrested on the afternoon of May 27 after giving a press briefing at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok on the military coup. Armed soldiers stormed the packed press club and arrested him in front of many journalists. Soldiers then escorted him to a white minivan and drove him away. After being taken to the pretrial detention facility at the Bangkok military court, where he was summarily denied bail, he was transferred to the Bangkok remand prison.
Later this week, Chaturon is expected to be tried before the military court for defying a summons to report to the military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), and for violating article 116(2) of the Penal Code. NCPO spokesman Col. Winthai Suwari said on May 28 that Chaturon had defied the junta’s order to report to them, and stated that the military viewed Chaturon’s statements at the FCCT as stirring up unrest.
The Thai military seized power in a coup on May 22 and established the NCPO, comprised of all branches of armed forces and the police. Three days later, the NCPO issued its 37th order, replacing civilian courts with military tribunals for some offenses. The order grants the military court authority to prosecute all crimes in the Thai penal code, including articles 107 to 112, which concern lese majeste crimes for insulting the monarchy, the queen, the heir-apparent, and the regent, and crimes regarding national security and sedition as stipulated in articles 113 to 118. In addition, individuals who violate the NCPO’s orders are also subject to trial by military court.
As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Thailand is obligated to uphold and take measures to ensure basic fair trial rights. Governments are prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts can still function. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, has stated in its General Comment on the right to a fair trial that “the trial of civilians in military or special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned.”
The rules governing the military courts as provided in the military order violate basic fair trial rights protected under the ICCPR.
By denying defendants access to counsel and the rights to appeal, they violate the rights to legal counsel, to have “adequate time and facilities” for the preparation of a defense, and to have a conviction and sentence reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law. It is not clear whether the military courts will respect the presumption of innocence or the right of the defendant to examine witnesses. The Human Rights Committee has stated that trials before military courts need to be “in full conformity with the requirements of [the ICCPR] and that its guarantees cannot be limited or modified because of the military or special character of the court concerned.”
The rolling crackdown on civil and political rights in Bangkok and other provinces raises deep concerns.
Since May 22, the military has detained more than 200 ruling party and opposition politicians, activists, journalists, and individuals accused of supporting the deposed government, disrespecting or offending the monarchy, or being involved in anti-coup protests and activities. While some have since been released, the military has continued to issue new orders summoning additional people to turn themselves in. After reporting to the military, those summoned are usually interrogated and then sent to be detained incommunicado in unofficial places of detention, such as military camps. Those who fail to report to a NCPO summons face arrest and prosecution, and are placed on an immigration blacklist to prohibit them from leaving Thailand.
“The use of military courts against civilians indicates that the post-coup military crackdown is only deepening,” Adams said. “At a time when the Thai military leadership should be returning the country to the rule of law, they instead are showing dangerous signs of creating a dictatorship.”