(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately disclose the whereabouts of an outspoken critic of the government who has not been heard from since his arrest on March 9, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta has officially denied knowledge of the arrest and location of Sarawut Bamrungkittikhun, who runs an anti-junta Facebook page Perd Praden (Opening Issues), which raises grave concerns of an enforced disappearance.
On March 9, more than 30 soldiers and police arrested Sarawut at his house in Surat Thani province. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the security forces did not present a warrant or inform Sarawut of the reasons for his arrest before taking him away to an undisclosed location.
“Thailand’s junta has repeatedly flouted international legal protections by secretly detaining critics of the government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should put to rest fears that Sarawut has been forcibly disappeared by immediately disclosing his whereabouts, allowing his family and lawyers access, and releasing him if he hasn’t been charged.”
NCPO spokesperson Col. Piyapong Klinphan told the media on March 12 that Thai authorities did not have knowledge of Sarawut’s arrest or his whereabouts:
We will look into this report and verify it. But at the moment, we do not have information that [Sarawut] was arrested and detained by the military authorities. Let me assure you that all military units always strictly follow due process when they carry out an arrest and put people in custody. Every step of the NCPO’s operations is transparent.
Contrary to the junta spokesperson’s statement, since the May 2014 coup, the NCPO has detained hundreds of politicians, activists, journalists, and others accused of being involved in anti-junta protests and activities, supporting the deposed government, or disrespecting or offending the monarchy. Many of these people have been held incommunicado and interrogated while detained in military camps.
Sarawut’s detention has already exceeded the seven-day administrative detention period permitted under NCPO Order 3/2558. There is no official notification that he has been formally charged. There are unverified reports that Sarawut was brought to Bangkok and put in detention at the prison facility inside the 11th Army Circle Camp. But his family and lawyers from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights have not obtained permission to visit him or received official confirmation that he was actually detained there.
Human Rights Watch submitted a letter to the Thai government on November 24, 2015, raising serious concerns regarding conditions at the 11th Army Circle Camp after the deaths of fortuneteller Suriyan Sucharitpolwong and Police Maj. Prakrom Warunprapa during their detention there. A prominent human rights lawyer, Chuchart Kanpai, was threatened with defamation charges after he reported that his client, Bilal Mohammad (also known as Adem Karadag), was tortured at the 11th Army Circle Camp into confessing to the August 2015 bomb attack at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine, which killed 20 people.
Recent government statements have indicated an increased willingness by the junta to carry out arrests without a legal basis. NCPO Chairman and Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha said at a January 21, 2016 news conference that the authorities had wide leeway to arrest people who violated the junta’s orders:
Officials could use any measures to carry out an arrest.... Why don’t people respect the laws instead of asking for democracy and human rights all the time?... No one is allowed to oppose [the NCPO]. I dare you to try to oppose [the NCPO].... I don’t care what the international community would think about this. I will send officials to explain to foreign embassies. I am not afraid of them. I will tell them to understand that this is Thailand and we are enforcing Thai laws.
Under the provisions of martial law and section 44 of the interim constitution, military authorities are empowered to arrest and secretly detain people for up to seven days, and interrogate them without access to lawyers or safeguards against mistreatment. The NCPO has repeatedly dismissed credible allegations that soldiers have tortured and ill-treated detainees, but has provided no evidence to rebut those allegations.
Human Rights Watch has regularly raised grave concerns regarding secret military detention in Thailand. The risk of enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment significantly increases when detainees are held incommunicado in military detention.
The government has not seriously investigated allegations of mistreatment by the armed forces. For instance, there has yet to be an official inquiry into the abduction and alleged beating and mistreatment of prominent student activist Sirawith Seritiwat by soldiers on January 20.
Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution. Since 1980, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand. None of these cases have been successfully resolved.
“Gen. Prayut has vowed to respect human rights, but he has repeatedly failed to follow through on his words,” Adams said. “Concerned governments should press the Thai government to immediately end arbitrary arrests and secret detentions, and release Sarawut and the rest of those wrongfully held.”