(New York) – The Thai government should promptly act on pledges to make torture and enforced disappearance criminal offenses, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 24, 2016, Thailand’s government announced it would submit a bill to criminalize torture and enforced disappearances to the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly. It also said Thailand would ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The government, however, provided no time frame for taking action on these pledges.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, May 16, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

“Officials who committed torture and enforced disappearances in Thailand have frequently avoided the severe punishment they deserve because the country’s laws don’t recognize these heinous crimes,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to take swift and concrete action to make torture and enforced disappearance criminal offenses and effectively implement the new laws.”

If passed, the bill will be the first Thai law to recognize and criminalize torture and enforced disappearance – including for crimes committed outside Thailand – with no exemptions for political or security reasons. The draft law provides penalties for government officials who commit torture of up to 20 years in prison, 30 years if the torture leads to serious injury, and life imprisonment if the torture results in death. Officials who commit enforced disappearance will face up to 20 years in prison, up to 30 years if the enforced disappearance leads to serious injury, and life imprisonment if death results. Any commanders or supervisors will face half of the penalty if they intentionally ignore the knowledge of torture or enforced disappearance committed by their subordinates.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged successive Thai governments to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Thailand signed in 2012, and to amend its penal code to make enforced disappearance a criminal offense. Human Rights Watch called on the current government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha to make these reforms in the January 14 letter. Human Rights Watch has expressed serious concerns regarding the junta’s repeated use of secret military detention, both under section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution against political dissenters and suspects in national security cases, and under the 1914 Martial Law Act against insurgent suspects in the southern border provinces, especially in the aftermath of the May 2014 coup.

Officials who committed torture and enforced disappearances in Thailand have frequently avoided the severe punishment they deserve because the country’s laws don’t recognize these heinous crimes. The government needs to take swift and concrete action to make torture and enforced disappearance criminal offenses and effectively implement the new laws.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

“Enforced disappearance” is 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 international law, 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. Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups working in Thailand believe that the actual number of such cases in Thailand is higher due to some families of victims and witnesses remaining silent for fear of reprisal and because the government lacks an effective witness protection system.

Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited under international treaties and customary international law. Since October 2007, Thailand has been a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which specifically places an obligation on governments to investigate and prosecute acts of torture and other ill-treatment. Article 4 of the convention states that a government should “ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.” The government should also “make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.”

Torture has long been a problem in police and military custody in Thailand. Since the military coup in May 2014, many individuals taken into military custody have said they were tortured or mistreated. Alleged methods of torture include beatings, electric shocks, and near suffocation. The junta has often dismissed allegations that the military, police, or other security forces have tortured and ill-treated detainees. Besides denying the allegations, the authorities have frequently accused those making allegations of making false statements with the intent of damaging Thailand’s reputation.

“Concerned states should step up now to insist the Thai government makes good on its pledges to combat torture and enforced disappearance,” Adams said. “These deeply rooted problems, which are glaring proof of lawlessness and disrespect for basic rights, will require a strong and sustained effort to eradicate.”