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(New York) – The Thai authorities should end efforts to cover-up abuses committed by soldiers during the 2010 political violence and prosecute all sides responsible for rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today.

A Thai army soldier and an army sniper aim their weapons during clashes with anti-government protesters in central Bangkok on May 15, 2010.   © 2010 Reuters

As reported in the Thai media, soldiers have claimed in the long delayed investigation by the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) that rubber bullets were chiefly used during the crackdown on street protests in 2010. Such claims first became public when the DSI questioned military snipers in August 2012.

Overwhelming evidence, including post mortems uncovering high velocity bullets, concluded that civilians were struck by live ammunition. The DSI is expected to submit the results of its investigation to the Office of the Attorney General by the end of August.

“For the army to pretend the many people who had bullets pulled out of their bodies were hit only by rubber bullets is a preposterous attempt at rewriting history,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Despite overwhelming evidence that soldiers used excessive and unnecessary lethal force against protesters and others, to date not a single soldier has been held accountable for deaths or injuries during the crackdown.”

From March to May 2010, political confrontations between the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts,” and the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, escalated into violence in Bangkok and several provinces. According to the DSI, at least 99 people lost their lives and more than 2,000 were injured. The DSI issued a finding in September 2012 indicating the military was culpable for 36 deaths.

Accounts given by military personnel to the DSI were contrary to the findings documented by Human Rights Watch in its May 2011 report, “Descent into Chaos: Thailand’s 2010 Red Shirt Protests and the Government Crackdown.” Human Rights Watch found that the high number of casualties – including unarmed demonstrators, volunteer medics and first responders, reporters, photographers, and bystanders – resulted in part from the enforcement of “live fire zones” around the UDD protest sites in Bangkok, where sharpshooters and snipers were deployed by the military. Similar findings were presented in September 2012 by the independent Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand, which recommended the authorities “address legal violations by all parties through the justice system, which must be fair and impartial.”

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.

In spite of this evidence, over the past five years successive Thai governments have ignored abuses by soldiers, while UDD leaders and supporters face serious charges for criminal offenses. Insufficient efforts have been made by the DSI to identify the soldiers and commanding officers responsible for the shootings. Under pressure from the military, the previous governments of Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra announced that soldiers should not be held responsible for unlawful deaths and injuries during the 2010 crackdown because they were acting under government orders.

Efforts to prosecute Abhisit and former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban under the doctrine of “command responsibility” because the two men had approved the use of live ammunition to contain and disperse the protests were rejected by the Bangkok Criminal Court. The court ruled in August 2014 that it had no jurisdiction and the case should instead be taken by the National Counter-Corruption Commission because the two men were political office holders at the time.

The prospects for justice for victims of the 2010 violence appear bleaker than ever under the ruling military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order. The junta leader, Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has said on many occasions that soldiers should not be condemned for the casualties during the 2010 political violence.

“The junta clearly is not serious about using justice as a foundation for the rule of law or political reconciliation,” Adams said. “No one responsible for serious abuses during the 2010 violence – including soldiers and their commanders – should be allowed to escape from criminal accountability.”

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