(New York) – Thailand’s lawmakers should reject a proposed revision to the Military Court Act that would broadly empower the armed forces to detain civilians without charge for nearly three months, Human Rights Watch said today.
Before the end of February 2015, the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly is expected to consider a draft amendment to the 1955 Statute of the Military Court Act, which the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha submitted on December 9, 2014. Article 46 of the amended law would allow local military commanders to detain civilians for up to 84 days without charge or judicial oversight.
“Thailand’s government is trying to hand the military unchecked authority to detain civilians,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thai lawmakers should reject this military power grab that puts all citizens at risk of prolonged detention without charge.”
The proposed amendment will allow the military to bypass judicial oversight under the Criminal Procedure Code. Intervention by judges under the procedural code has been the sole safeguard against prolonged arbitrary detention since the military coup on May 22, 2014.
Three days after the coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, issued order number 37, replacing civilian courts with military tribunals for trying some offenses. The order empowers the military court to prosecute all crimes in the Thai penal code, including lese majeste crimes for insulting the monarchy and national security and sedition offenses. In addition, people who violate the NCPO’s orders are also subject to trial by military court.
Over the past eight months, the military has arbitrarily detained hundreds of civilians under martial law powers and tried many in military courts in Bangkok and other provinces, in violation of international law. Those held have been denied access to lawyers and family members. The NCPO has disregarded and refused to seriously investigate detainees’ allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
The proposed amendment to the military court law would violate Thailand’s obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to ensure due process and fair trial rights. Under article 9 of the ICCPR, no one may be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention, and shall be promptly informed of the reasons for their arrest. A person detained on suspicion of a criminal offense is to be brought promptly before a judge. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, has interpreted “promptly” to mean within a few days. The proposed amendment ensures none of the protections against wrongful detention provided under international law.
Furthermore, governments are prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts can still function. The Human Rights Committee 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.” This is particularly problematic in Thailand where every element of military courts functions within the Defense Ministry’s chain of command, which has been controlled by the NCPO since the May coup.
“The proposed amendment is just the junta’s latest broken promise to return the country to rights-respecting, democratic rule,” Adams said. “Enshrining detention without charge and military trials of civilians will perpetuate dictatorship – not democracy – in Thailand.”