(New York) – Thai authorities should investigate and appropriately prosecute a junior officer implicated in the torture and killing of a Muslim cleric in 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. The case is a major test of the Thai government’s commitment to justice for military abuses in embattled southern Thailand.
On September 21, 2015, the National Anti-Corruption Commission announced that it had found Sub-Lt. Sirikhet Wanitbamrung responsible for beating 56-year-old Imam Yapa Kaseng to death while the imam was detained at the 39th Taskforce Unit in Narathiwat province in March 2008. The commission recommended Sirikhet face both disciplinary and criminal action.
“Imam Yapa’s death is a test case for the Thai authorities and army on whether they are willing to punish abusive troops for serious human rights violations,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “No more cover-up and delay – the new commission findings demand an immediate response.”
Thailand is obligated under international treaties to which it is a party to investigate and appropriately prosecute torture, custodial deaths, and other alleged serious violations of human rights. These obligations apply at all times, regardless of the political or security situation in the country. On the basis of the commission report, the army should expel Sirikhet and turn him over to the police for investigation and appropriate prosecution. The Thai army should also conduct a broader investigation into the case of Imam Yapa for possible disciplinary and criminal action against other soldiers and officers who might be responsible for the torture and killing, and for any cover-up of criminal offenses.
Detainees in the southern border provinces are especially vulnerable to serious abuses during pre-charge detention. Thai security laws allow the military to hold detainees for up to 37 days without any effective safeguards against rights abuses, including access to lawyers and family members.
The torture and killing of Imam Yapa highlights the broader problem of the Thai government’s counterinsurgency operations. Although all soldiers in the southern border provinces are required to carry a code-of-conduct booklet produced by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), many former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were tortured by interrogators, including soldiers both in uniform and in civilian clothes.
The Thai army should immediately ensure the safety of all detainees; provide urgent medical care to all who sustained injuries during arrest or in detention; allow timely access to legal counsel and family members; and launch a full investigation into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
Thai security forces in the southern border provinces continue to commit abuses with effective impunity from prosecution. The Thai government has yet to successfully prosecute any security personnel for abuses against ethnic Malay Muslims alleged to be involved in the insurgency. There is no credible and effective mechanism to help investigate complaints from ethnic Malay Muslims concerning abusive, corrupt, or inept officials.
Human rights in Thailand’s southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and Songkhla have eroded steadily as a result of insurgent attacks against civilians and heavy-handed responses by the security forces. More than 6,000 people have died in the violence since January 2004. The majority of victims are civilians from both the ethnic Malay Muslim and the Thai Buddhist communities.
“As a priority, the Thai government needs to overhaul the counterinsurgency strategy that encourages abuses and then fails to provide effective redress for victims,” Adams said. “By relying on repressive measures to battle rebel forces, the Thai authorities have created a fertile ground for the insurgency to expand, precisely the opposite of what they intended.”
Torture and Killing of Imam Yapa
Imam Yapa’s son witnessed the torture of his father by soldiers of the 39th Taskforce Unit, then deployed inside Wat Suan Tham temple in Narathiwat province. He told Human Rights Watch:
Soldiers took my father away at about 8 p.m. on March 20, 2008. That was the first interrogation. I saw them take him behind the camp clinic – not far from where I was detained. I could hear everything that happened to my father. I heard punching and kicking noise. I heard my father scream in pain. That went on for at least two hours. I was so angry that I could do nothing to help my father. When my father was taken back, I saw those soldiers kept kicking him very hard all the way. When my father fell down, they kicked him again and again. They were laughing. My father could barely walk when they forced him to get up on his feet.
Then, about 30 minutes later, they came to take him out and beat him up again. I could hear my father beg them not to hurt him anymore. They brought him back about midnight. This time, they had to carry him back. I only had about 15 minutes with my father before the soldiers took him out again until 2 a.m. on the next day. There were more than 10 soldiers hitting, punching, and kicking my father. I saw them hit him hard on his head. When my father fell down on the floor, some soldiers stepped on him and stomped on his chest. When they were done with him, my father could not walk at all. Two soldiers had to drag him by his ankles back to the truck. My father was still conscious, and he told me that it hurt so much. I tried to ask for help. I shouted to the guards to take my father to hospital. They did not even turn their heads. I stayed with my father until he died on the truck, where we were locked up.
Dr. Supavit Phakdichot of Rue So District Hospital, who performed the autopsy examination of Imam Yapa, testified at the Narathiwat Provincial Court’s inquest in June 2008 that the cause of Imam Yapa’s death was blunt force trauma, including fractures of the ribs from the front, the side, and the back. Broken bones punctured his lungs. Bruises and wounds were found all over his body, including his eyes, forehead, and lips. He also had long abrasion marks on his back, indicating he may have been dragged by his ankles across a hard and rough surface.
Since his death, Imam Yapa’s family has been seeking justice through civil and criminal suits. In July 2011, the Bangkok Civil Court ordered the Defense Ministry and the army to pay 5.2 million baht (US$144,444) compensation to the family. But for the criminal suit, the case had to be referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission because the soldiers from the 39th Taskforce Unit were accused of committing an offense while performing their official duties, which places them under military jurisdiction. The commission’s inquiry took seven years to reach a finding on Sirikhet. No sufficient evidence was found to hold accountable other soldiers who were also accused in this case.