(New York) – Thailand’s junta should stop bringing sedition charges against critics of the draft constitution, Human Rights Watch said today. A referendum on the proposed constitution is slated for August 7, 2016.
Critics of the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) held in military detention on politically motivated charges of sedition or other offenses should be immediately released and the charges dropped.
“The junta’s use of its draconian sedition law against critics of the draft constitution creates a climate of fear ahead of the referendum,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Military repression has become a daily reality in Thailand, and it’s intensifying as the August 7 vote approaches.”
On July 27 in Bangkok, military authorities arrested Tassanee Buranupakorn, the vice president of the Chiang Mai provincial administrative organization and former member of parliament from the deposed Pheu Thai Party. She was accused of involvement in the distribution of letters that the NCPO claimed presented distorted information about the proposed constitution – the so-called draft constitution letters. The day before, soldiers arrested Tassanee’s sister, Thanthip Buranupakorn, at her house in Chiang Mai on the same allegation. Tassanee and her sister are among 11 people that the junta has accused of committing sedition in relation to the draft constitution letters. If found guilty in a military tribunal, they could face imprisonment of up to seven years.
Article 116 of Thailand’s Criminal Code defines sedition as public statements or writing intended to “bring about a change in the laws or the government by the use of coercion or violence;… raise confusion or disaffection amongst the people to the point of causing unrest in the kingdom; or have people violate the law.”
Also accused in this case are Boonlert Buranupakorn, Tassanee’s uncle and the president of the Chiang Mai provincial administrative organization; Khachen Jiakkhajorn, the mayor of Chiang Mai province’s Chang Phuak municipality; Wisarut Khananitisarn, Atipong Khammoon, and Kritkorn Paitaya, Chang Phuak municipality officials; as well as Aim-orn Tabsok, Supawadee Ngarm-muang, Tevarat Inta, and Kobkarn Sukita.
The junta has ignored concerted calls from the United Nations and foreign governments for Thai authorities to respect people’s rights to freely express their views on the draft constitution. The NCPO, chaired by Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, has imposed conditions for the constitutional referendum that have increasingly hindered open public discussion. In addition to the sedition law, article 61 of the 2016 Referendum Act criminalizes “anyone who disseminates text, pictures or sounds that are inconsistent with the truth or in a violent, aggressive, rude, inciting or threatening manner aimed at preventing a voter from casting a ballot or vote in any direction or to not vote.” Violators face imprisonment of up to 10 years and fines up to 200,000 baht (US$5,600).
The junta has deemed criticisms and dissenting opinions about the draft constitution to be “false information” and a threat to national security. As a result, the only sources of information for many voters about the draft constitution now come from government agencies – all of which have taken the position that the proposed constitution would benefit the Thai people.
“The combination of sedition charges and military detentions suggests that the junta wants to stifle information and turn up the heat on Thai voters so they accept a constitution that would prolong military control,” Adams said.
Using the NCPO orders 3/2558 and 13/2559 issued by Gen. Prayut, the junta continues to flout international legal protections by detaining and interrogating dissenters in military camps without access to lawyers or other effective safeguards against abuse for up to seven days. On June 27, the military authorities put Tassanee, Thanthip, Khachen, Supawadee, Kobkarn, Atipong, and Aim-orn in detention at the 11th Army Circle Camp in Bangkok.
Under article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a party, no one may be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. Furthermore, governments are prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts can still function. The UN 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.”
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Thai junta to immediately transfer all civilians detained at the 11th Army Circle military base to an officially recognized civilian place of detention that complies with international standards, and to ensure no further non-military prisoners are detained at this facility or any other similar facility. 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. On May 17, 2016, Bilal Mohammad (also known as Adem Karadag) complained that he was tortured at the 11th Army Circle Camp into confessing to the August 2015 bomb attack at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine.
“The world is witness to the junta’s broken promises to return Thailand to rights-respecting, democratic rule,” Adams said. “A free and fair constitutional referendum can’t be held when the rights of people to speak and exchange their views are suppressed.”