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(New York, March 8, 2017) – The Thai military’s dropping of frivolous defamation lawsuits against three prominent activists should be the first step toward ending government intimidation, censorship, and retaliation against human rights defenders in southern Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today.

Pornpen Khongkachonkie, Somchai Homlaor, and Anchana Heemmina.  © 2016 Amnesty International Thailand

On March 7, 2017, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4, which covers security operations along the southern border with Malaysia, announced it would end legal action against the activists, who accused Thai security personnel of torturing suspected ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents over more than a decade.

“This decision to drop charges against three activists is welcome but will be quickly forgotten if the military continues to interfere with human rights monitoring in Thailand’s southern border provinces,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “The military’s willingness to undergo independent scrutiny will determine whether this is just one case to spruce up its image – or a genuine commitment to accountability.”

In May 2016, ISOC Region 4 officials filed a criminal complaint against Somchai Homlaor, Pornpen Khongkachonkie, and Anchana Heemmina, accusing them of criminal defamation under the Penal Code and publicizing false information online under the Computer Crimes Act. The complaint was related to a report by the Cross Cultural Foundation, Duay Jai Group, and the Patani Human Rights Network that documented 54 cases of torture and mistreatment in military custody between 2004 and 2015. If convicted, the activists faced up to five years in prison and a 100,000 baht (US$2,850) fine.

Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited under international law. The Convention against Torture, which Thailand ratified in 2007, obligates governments to investigate and prosecute acts of torture and other ill-treatment committed by government officials. However, the Thai government has yet to successfully prosecute any security personnel for abuses against ethnic Malay Muslims alleged to be involved in the insurgency.

In June 2014, the United Nations Committee Against Torture recommended that Thailand “take all the necessary measures to: (a) put an immediate halt to harassment and attacks against human rights defenders, journalists, and community leaders; and (b) systematically investigate all reported instances of intimidation, harassment and attacks with a view to prosecuting and punishing perpetrators, and guarantee effective remedies to victims and their families.”

The Thai government has an obligation to ensure that all people and organizations engaged in the protection and promotion of human rights are able to work in a safe and enabling environment, Human Rights Watch said. The right to file complaints about torture and mistreatment, and to have the complaint promptly and impartially investigated, is provided for under international treaties to which Thailand is party. In addition, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders affirms the prohibition against retaliation, threats, and harassment of anyone who takes peaceful action to oppose human rights violations, both within and beyond the exercise of their professional duties.

Contrary to Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha’s promise to criminalize torture in fulfillment of Thailand’s international obligations, the military has regularly dismissed allegations of torture and other serious abuses committed by security personnel in the southern border provinces. Military agencies have also retaliated against human rights activists by filing lawsuits accusing critics of making false statements with the intent of damaging the military’s reputation. The number of legal cases brought against activists for reporting and addressing human rights violations is increasing across Thailand. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised concerns that Thai authorities, private companies, and individuals often retaliate against those reporting alleged abuses by filing defamation lawsuits accusing activists and victims of making false statements.

In addition, Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act, adopted by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly on December 16, 2016, gives overly broad powers to the government to restrict free speech and enforce censorship. Articles 14(1) and (2) of this law provide grounds for the government to prosecute anything they designate as “false” and, in the case of article 14(1), “distorted” information, terms which are very broad. Past prosecutions have shown such provisions in law are readily open to abuse.

“Now that the military accepts that the allegations against them aren’t defamatory, they should ensure an impartial investigation of the alleged abuses outside the military chain of command,” Adams said. “Permitting monitoring is just the first step. Now the authorities need to fairly prosecute those responsible and begin to restore their reputation in the deep south provinces of Thailand.” 

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