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Thailand: Investigate Army Torture, Murder in Drug Case

End Military Powers to Arrest, Detain Civilians on Narcotics Charges

Father of Yuttana Saisa praying at the funeral on April 20, 2020. © 2020 Private

(Bangkok) – The Thai authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the torture of two suspects by a military anti-drug unit and hold all those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today. Yutthana Saisa, 33, died in military custody in Nakhon Phanom province on April 17, 2020, after soldiers allegedly tortured him and his brother Natthapong Saisa, 29, during an interrogation. The unit’s commanders pledged on April 19 to investigate the case.

The Thai government should prevent further military abuses by immediately revoking broad authority that allows military personnel to arrest, detain, and interrogate suspected drug users and sellers. The Thai military has frequently been implicated in arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, and torture in anti-narcotics operations.

“The Thai soldiers who tortured these two brothers, killing one of them, will only face justice for this ghastly crime if there is an independent and impartial investigation,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai government should realize that the military shouldn’t be carrying out civilian law enforcement and should end their authority to carry out drug raids.”

Natthapong told the media that on April 17 at about 8:30 p.m., more than 10 uniformed soldiers from the Surasakmontri Task Force’s anti-drug unit stormed their house in Ban Yangkham village. The soldiers announced they were conducting an anti-drug raid and accused the brothers of selling methamphetamine. The soldiers then took Yutthana and Natthapong to their base inside the nearby Kantasilawat Buddhist temple.

About seven soldiers separately interrogated each of the men, demanding that they confess they sold drugs in the community. Natthapong said the soldiers repeatedly punched and kicked him and his brother and stomped on their chests. He said the soldiers also lifted them up and slammed them to the ground.

Natthapong said that the torture continued for about an hour. His brother lost consciousness and the soldiers took him to Somdej Pra Yupparat Hospital. He was pronounced dead from severe brain and chest injuries, according to an autopsy report. The soldiers detained Natthapong overnight, then released him to his parents, who then took him to the hospital on the evening of April 18. Natthapong suffered two broken ribs and other chest injuries, as well as multiple bruises and cuts.

Since the military coup in 2014, the Thai military has been actively involved in anti-drug operations across the country. National Peace and Order Council (NCPO) Order 23/2015, issued by Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha in July 2015, provides broad powers to military personnel to conduct a warrantless search, arrest anyone accused of drug-related offenses, and detain them for interrogation up to three days before handing them over to the police.

Such actions are carried out without court oversight and effective safeguards against abuses. The government did not revoke this order when the council disbanded after the elected government took office in July 2019, leaving the order in effect.

Thailand is a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which obligates governments to investigate and prosecute acts of torture and other ill-treatment.

The public pledges by Surasakmontri Task Force commanders to investigate their own soldiers’ actions in this incident are wholly inadequate, Human Rights Watch said. The Thai military has in the past failed to conduct serious and credible inquiries of alleged abuses related to military-led anti-drug operations. Previous cases have resulted only in the military agreeing to provide financial compensation to the victims or their families in exchange for their agreement not to pursue criminal prosecution of abusive military personnel.

“This torture case is a major test for the Thai government to demonstrate that it is committed to respecting basic rights and ensuring justice for victims of serious human rights violations,” Adams said. “The Thai government should take its military out of drug enforcement so that no family will suffer such brutality in the future.” 

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