(New York) – Thai authorities should promptly and independently investigate the death of an army conscript from apparent torture while detained in a military jail, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also undertake a broader campaign to end the longstanding use of corporal punishment in the armed forces, including by prosecuting military commanders for serious offenses by soldiers under their command.
On April 1, 2017, Pvt. Yutthakinun Boonniam, 22, was pronounced dead at the Surat Thani Hospital, a day after he was brought in from the military remand facility at the 45th Military Circle Camp in Surat Thani province, where he had been detained since March 27 for disciplinary offenses. The doctors stated that he suffered many injuries, including kidney damage, apparently from severe beatings. Yatthakinun’s last words to his mother, who visited him at the hospital, were: “I was beaten up. It hurt so much.”
“Another army conscript dies from an apparent beating, yet Thai leaders don’t seem interested in addressing the problem,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government and the military should urgently act to end these brutal assaults and the culture of impunity that has meant no punishment for abusive soldiers and the officers ultimately responsible.”
On April 3, the army commander-in-chief, Gen. Chalermchai Sittisat, publicly expressed regret and apologized for Yutthakinun’s death. But while stating that corporal punishment was forbidden in military camps, General Chalermchai blamed the death on “old habits among soldiers who were previously deployed along Thailand’s border and are used to strict discipline and harsh punitive measures.”
The army inducts about 100,000 conscripts across Thailand each year but fails to implement effective safeguards against torture and other human rights violations committed by officers or other soldiers.
“Contrary to army spokesperson Col. Winthai Suvaree’s statement on April 3 that Yutthakinun’s death was an isolated incident, the Thai army faces a chronic inability to end abuses against its conscripts,” Adams said.
In another high-profile case reported by Human Rights Watch, there has been no progress in prosecuting the soldiers responsible for the death of Pvt. Wichian Puaksom, who was tortured to death while undergoing disciplinary punishment at the 151st Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division in Narathiwat province in June 2011.
Torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited under international treaties that Thailand has ratified. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment specifically places an obligation on governments to investigate and prosecute acts of torture and other ill-treatment.
However, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha’s repeated pledges to make torture a criminal offense under Thai law remain unfulfilled.
Thai military personnel have also been repeatedly implicated in torture and other abuses against suspected insurgents and civilians in Thailand’s southern border provinces, where there has been a long-running insurgency.
However, the government is not known to have prosecuted successfully any members of the security forces for torture or other serious abuses against civilians. In many cases, Thai authorities have provided financial compensation to the victims or their families in exchange for their agreement not to pursue criminal prosecution against abusive officials. There have also been many reported instances in which military officers retaliated against their accusers by filing criminal defamation lawsuits and alleging those complainants violated the Computer-Related Crime Act by disseminating false statements online.
“Thailand’s military needs to take swift action to show that there will be no place in its ranks for those who believe they have unchecked powers to abuse other soldiers or anyone else,” Adams said. “The government and top military commanders should ensure that Private Yutthakinun’s death will be the last case of barrack brutality in Thailand.”