A policy of not solving human rights cases


In recent weeks Thailand’s media has attentively reported on the arrest of some paramilitary police who are alleged to have abducted and framed tens, perhaps hundreds, of people.

The Border Patrol Police officers set up most of their victims on charges under which the accused could not get bail. Some they released after receiving ransom. One of these, a middle-aged woman, in January set off the alarm after she, her son and two others had been freed. Since then, over 60 more have complained to the Rights and Liberties Protection Department. At least 180 inmates have reportedly sought for their files to be reopened.

Victims have described how they were held in groups and tortured. According to one, she and her partner [above] were taken to a bungalow where they saw at least twenty more people tied up, some hooded; a few with smashed teeth and bruised faces. Another has claimed that she was electrocuted while pregnant, despite pleading for her baby. She gave birth in remand, awaiting a trial in which she was acquitted of any crime.

A few years ago, a case like this would have been accompanied by loud calls for it to be moved outside of the police force and into the hands of the Department of Special Investigation. But such calls have been noticeably absent this time around. So far it has been left to the metropolitan branch to make inquiries.

The DSI was established in 2004 under the Justice Ministry. It is one among a number of new bodies introduced through the criminal justice reform agenda of the abrogated 1997 Constitution, which were intended in part to break the police monopoly on criminal investigation in Thailand.

Human rights advocates welcomed the agency. They saw in it the possibility of genuine inquiries into extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and torture.

But the department soon disappointed. Many cases that should have been classified as “special” were overlooked or rejected. Detailed allegations of kidnapping and extortion by police in Saraburi were apparently not special enough. Nor was the alleged brutal torture of a group of young men in Ayutthaya, or the simultaneous “suicide” of three men in a Lamphun holding cell.

Perhaps in hindsight it was just as well. The victims and families of cases taken up by the DSI have nothing to show for it but bitter experiences and dashed hopes.

Among the department’s long list of unsolved cases is the police abduction and presumed killing of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit in 2004; the torture of Ekkawat Srimanta, who later withdrew his complaint; the murder of environmentalists Charoen Wat-aksorn and Phra Supoj Suwajo; alleged kidnappings and homicides by police in the northern province of Kalasin, and the disappearance of five people, including a child, from the south.

The department’s failures cannot be attributed to a lack of resources or power. It is relatively well equipped and certainly has ample authority. It trumpets its abilities to hunt down pyramid scheme fraudsters, dubious amulet makers and corrupt fire truck procurers. So why can’t it catch police kidnappers and killers, or even those who cover up the crimes of kidnappers and killers?

The answer to that question can be found in the department’s short history, and in its makeup. Although under a government ministry, it was from the start headed by a policeman. He was for much of the time under a justice minister who had been a policeman, and who was in turn under a prime minister who again had been a policeman.

From the beginning, policemen oversaw, managed and staffed the DSI. For all practical purposes, it became another branch of the police, with the same unofficial policy of not solving human rights cases.

By 2006 human rights defenders had had enough. A petition was launched calling for the dismissal of the department’s head, Pol. Gen. Sombat Amornvivat. Some asked that he be criminally investigated for obstructing justice in the Somchai case, which had floundered since he had taken the unusual step of handling it personally some twelve months earlier.

At the end of that year, the new military junta removed Sombat and installed a respected judge as DSI chief. The change was welcomed in some quarters, but it proved to be a false dawn. No further progress has been made on any human rights case under his watch. The ministry has found it hard to break the police stranglehold on the department.

There is little hope that it will be broken anytime soon. Sombat has been brought back into the police force as a deputy commissioner general. His older brother has just become justice minister; so much for Somchai.

People around Thailand will continue to read the unfolding Border Patrol Police story with interest, but perhaps little surprise. Whether or not it comes to anything other than headlines remains to be seen. There are, after all, very few precedents of effective criminal action against violators of human rights in Thailand. Unfortunately, there are none at all from among the cases handled by the Department of Special Investigation, which is why there are also no longer any calls for it to intervene where and when it is needed most.

Source: A policy of not solving human rights cases

More on the BPP case:

More charges levelled against border police gang (The Nation)

Warrant out for fugitive policeman in crime ring (The Nation)

“Execute gang if they are guilty” (The Nation)

THAILAND: Urgent need for a law against torture (AHRC)

Not rogue cops but a rogue system (AHRC)

Prosecute Anti-Drugs Police Identified in Abuses (HRW)

More on the DSI:

Institutionalised torture, extrajudicial killings & uneven application of law in Thailand: Supplement (ALRC)

What is the point of Thailand’s DSI? (AHRC)

Department of Special Investigation or Department of Sporadic Interest? (AHRC)

Is it possible to restore public faith in the DSI? (AHRC)

4 responses to “A policy of not solving human rights cases

  1. Sudden transfer

    The director of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), was ordered to clean out his office late Friday afternoon and take an immediate transfer.

    The media noted that Sunai Manomai-udom, head of DSI since the Sept 19, 2006 military coup, had handled several significant cases involving ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his family following the 2006 military coup.

    He will be moved to become head of the Office for the Prevention and Suppression of Corruption by Government Officials. It is a new agency set up to focus on corruption involving junior government officials – only up to civil service Level 8.

    The post-election musical chairs will bring Pol Col Thawee Sodsong, now deputy secretary-general of Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), back to the DSI as acting director-general.

    Pol Col Thawee was deputy chief of DSI at the time of the coup, but was moved out by the military-appointed government under Gen Surayud Chulanont.

    Mr Sunai told journalists that he received a telephone call from Charan Pakdithanakul, Permanent Secretary for Justice, on Friday evening.

    The permanent secretary informed him that he would be transferred to the new agency effective Monday morning.

    Mr Sunai was appointed as director-general of the DSI, often called “the FBI of Thailand,” in November of 2006, about two months after the military coup. (BangkokPost.com, TNA)


    THAILAND: Superior officer of border police responsible whether he likes it or not
    February 21, 2008, Asian Human Rights Commission, AHRC-STM-043-2008

    In media reports of 20 February 2008 the commanding officer of a unit of Border Patrol Police officers accused of abducting and torturing dozens–possibly hundreds–of persons in Thailand has denied that he was responsible for their actions. Pol. Col. Somkiat Nuathong, commander of Task Force 42 based in Nakhon Si Thammarat, reportedly said that he never ordered anyone to abduct or torture Juthaporn Rodnoon last year. Juthaporn alleges that she was electrocuted while pregnant and forced to admit to a narcotics offence for which she was later acquitted. She is among over 70 persons who have now lodged formal complaints of similar offences by the group.

    Talking to journalists, Pol. Col. Somkiat admitted that he had set up the unit headed by Pol. Capt. Nat Chonnithiwanit and allowed it to operate autonomously in order to crackdown on the movement of drugs in his area. But he said that claims by the subordinate officers that they had just been following orders were not correct. He added that there had earlier been complaints made against the unit but internal inquiries had not uncovered wrongdoing.

    This is a very important aspect of this case that was bound to come to the surface sooner or later. As the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has pointed out on numerous previous occasions, one of the main barriers to prosecution of human rights offenders in the police and other state agencies in Thailand is the absence of effective command responsibility. Superior officers routinely deny knowing about wrongdoing by lower-ranked officers. And to the extent that a notion of responsibility exists, it is not in accepting blame but rather in defending junior personnel from allegations and intimidating persons making complaints and acting as witnesses.

    Whether he likes it or not, Pol. Col. Somkiat is responsible. He is responsible because he was the commanding officer of Pol. Capt. Nat and his team, and because he had a duty to know what the unit was doing. If he gave the unit the freedom to do what he wanted, then he bears responsibility for that decision too.

    And he had responsibility to see that complaints against the unit were fully and properly investigated. The AHRC has had ample experiences with police internal inquiries: it has received many communications from senior officers on cases that it has documented and followed in detail in which investigations have been supposedly conducted and all personnel have been cleared. The fact that in this case also complaints were made but nobody was found to have done anything wrong, despite the scale of abuse and number of victims, is indicative of the deep contradictions and problems in having police investigate one another. It is for this reason that in 2005 the UN Human Rights Committee, assessing Thailand’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, recommended that the government introduce an independent civilian-run body to receive and investigate complaints of this sort against police and security officers. The proposal has never been acted upon.

    Pol. Col. Somkiat either knew what his men were doing, because he ordered it or condoned it, or he didn’t. Either way, he has no excuses. If the former, then he is guilty of being involved and must also be prosecuted. If the latter, he is at very least unfit to serve as a police commander and must be removed from service. Prior experience suggests that it is disingenuous for him to deny that he knew anything of what was happening under his watch.

    Given the number of officers involved and the size of their operation, it is likely that Pol. Col. Somkiat is not the only senior officer with responsibility in this case, or over which there are grounds for suspicion that he was involved or would at least have known something. The ongoing investigation must thus not be limited only to him as the immediate superior but take in the full chain of command and the higher officers in other related units.

    Meanwhile, it should be kept in mind that it is no excuse for Pol. Capt. Nat’s men either that they were only following orders. Under the UN Convention against Torture, which Thailand joined last year, the following of a superior’s instructions is explicitly ruled out as a defence for an act of torture. It is thus all parties that bear responsibility for the gross abuses committed by this Border Patrol Unit, and the consequences for the alleged perpetrators, if found guilty, should equally be measured in terms of international standards. For this reason too, Thailand must promptly enact a law against torture in accordance with the terms of the convention.

  2. Nat’s gang implicated

    Police find grounds to most complaints

    The extortion gang allegedly led by Nat Chonnithiwanit, of the Border Patrol Police, was found to be involved in most of the 101 complaints lodged against them, deputy police chief Thani Somboonsap said yesterday.

    He said 80 complaints had clear links to Pol Capt Nat, who was with unit 41 in Chumphon after being transferred from unit 42 in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

    The gang allegedly held people for ransom, forced innocent people to confess to drug trafficking and claimed rewards totalling 2.9 million baht for bogus arrests.

    Complaints came from Krabi, Chumphon, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Phatthalung, Samut Prakan, Nakhon Phanom and Bangkok.

    The deputy police chief said no evidence so far had implicated any of Pol Capt Nat’s superiors in unit 42.

    The Police Inspector-General’s Office would decide if Pol Capt Nat’s superiors should be the subject of a disciplinary inquiry.

    He conceded it was difficult to prevent police abuse of authority, but the problem should not occur if superiors properly controlled their men.

    Pol Gen Thani said the first case against the gang should be ready for the prosecution next week.

    Bang Phlad police reported they had completed about 90% of the case preparation in the kidnapping and ransom of Piangjit Pueng-on and her two sons. They were still awaiting some bank details.

    Phetkasem police also reported progress in investigating cases in their jurisdiction.

    Gang members were arrested in Bangkok on Jan 25 after Mrs Piangjit told police she was abducted, drugs were planted on her and 8.7 million baht extorted from her before she and her two sons were freed.

    The Justice Ministry’s Rights and Liberties Protection Department had sent a list of 66 inmates thought to be victims of the gang for police investigation, he said.

    Of the 66, 45 prisoners had already filed formal complaints.

    ”It is too soon to talk about remedial action [granting bail and compensation] for the inmates on drug charges,” Pol Gen Thani said.

    ”The investigation is not complete. We have only just received the list.”

    (Bangkok Post, 13 March 2008)

  3. 4 years on from the loss of Charoen Wat-aksorn: What has society learned from his death?
    Ongard Decha
    24 June 2008

    Charoen Wat-aksorn, together with the Bo Nok-Hin Krud villagers, had been struggling against the power plant project of the Gulf Power Generation Company in Prachuab Kiri Khan Province. In the end, the government had to halt the project. Then he and the villagers joined together in a struggle against a business which had trespassed on public land to build shrimp farms. This campaign was to protect the collective rights of the villagers.

    On the night of 21 June 2004 at around 10.00 pm, Charoen was shot dead by gunmen at the Bo Nok intersection after he got off a bus and was heading into the village.

    At first, we were led to believe that there had been some progress in the case after five suspects were arrested. Two of them, Mr. Saneh Lekluan and Mr. Prachuap Hinkaew, stated that they were the culprits but did not speak about the person that had hired them to kill Charoen.

    The police later arrested two politicians who were brothers and a local lawyer. The case then was transferred to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI). The father of the two politicians was later arrested but there was widespread criticism at the lack of development in the investigation. The gunmen remained in prison, while the three other suspects were set free.

    On 21 March 2006, before the hearing of witnesses began, Mr. Prachuap was found dead in prison. It was alleged that he died from a bacterial infection. As the court was hearing witness testimony, on 3 August 2006, Mr. Saneh was also found dead.

    These incidents led many to think the case was increasingly suspicious because of the mysterious deaths of the two gunmen while they were detained in prison.

    The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has been raising queries and calling for the release of information regarding the deaths of the two hitmen and those behind them involved in the killing of Charoen Wat-aksorn, the environmental activist. The Commission also raised suspicions at the failure to perform an autopsy on the two gunmen even though they died in prison. This gives rise to grave suspicions about the real cause of death of the gunmen and the implications for the strength of the prosecution of those who ordered the murder of Charoen.

    On 9 August 2006, the Bangkok Post reported that the director of the prison hospital said in an interview that Mr. Saneh did not show any sign of malaria before his death. Many are also suspicious that the two gunmen died within a few months of the each other while the trial was taking place. There had earlier been statements by the relatives of the gunmen that they did not think that the two would come out of prison alive.

    The supporters of Charoen and human rights organizations called for an autopsy of Mr. Saneh by the Central Institute of Forensic Science or other related agencies in addition to one by the Royal Thai Police and Department of Corrections. There have still been no reports of further investigations. The deaths of the two men raise questions regarding standards of witness protection in Thailand. The current witness protection law does not include suspects who are being detained. Detainees and former detainees who talked to AHRC said that murder in prisons can easily be reported as natural deaths from illness.

    The other three suspects who were arrested later are not the real mastermind behind the killing. It is believed that the person who ordered Charoen’s murder is still at loose in the Bo Nok area as if nothing has happened!

    Prachatai had the opportunity to interview Korn-uma Pongnoi, the widow of Charoen and the President of the Rak Bo Nok Group on the 4th anniversary of the murder of Charoen Wat-aksorn.

    What has been happening in the case of Charoen Wat-aksorn?

    21 June 2008 is the 4th anniversary of his murder. We can say that the court proceedings are very slow. The suspects that were arrested are in court. Now the case is in the court of first instance. The questioning of the witnesses for the prosecution is endless. The DSI once said that they would expand the investigation, but we are not seeing any kind of development.

    Can you explain who has been arrested?

    All together five suspects were arrested. The first person arrested was the gunmen who shot Charoen. There was an eyewitness who saw the shooting at the temple pavilion. The first gunman arrested was Mr. Saneh Lekluan. The second was Mr. Prachuap Hinkaew. During the interrogation, reference was made to Mr. Thanu Hinkaew, who is a lawyer and also the third defendent. After that, Mr. Manot Hinkaew, a Prachuap Kiri Khan Provincial Councillor and the brother of Mr. Thanu Hinkaew gave himself up to the police. This was the outcome from the earlier interrogation by the police.

    At this point, the details of the interrogation process were recorded on video by the police. Mr. Saneh Lekluan and Mr. Prachuap Hinkaew implicated Mr. Thanu Hinkaew as involved in planning the murder at a gas station where Mr. Saneh lives. It is the same station owned by Kamnan Jua Hinkaew, who is Mr. Thanu’s father. Mr. Thanu also drove Mr. Prachuap Hinkaew (who is also his relative and stayed at his house) to meet with Mr. Saneh.

    After that, we demanded that the case be investigated by the DSI as we were starting to see irregularities. We noticed that there was an attempt to make this a case of personal conflict by eliminating those related to the case from the picture. In reality, the death of Charoen is a murder which had been planned by a large number of people. In the initial investigation by the police, there was an attempt to frame the case as motivated by personal hatred, claiming that a gunman was waiting to kill Charoen without knowing that Charoen was coming back from Bangkok. The reason was given that Charoen had once insulted the killer’s mother.

    We later also found out that the telephone conversation that was recorded formally was not included in the case. Copies of the telephone calls among the suspects were removed as well.

    After the case was transferred to the DSI, what progress has there been?

    What the DSI could do was to conduct further investigations after the arrest of Mr. Jua Hinkaew, who is the father of Mr. Thanu Hinkaew and Mr. Manot Hinkaew (the Provincial Councillor). This was an outcome from the investigation tracing the gun. Mr. Saneh claimed that the gun he used had been stolen by Mr. Jua from a police officer named as Police Senior Sergeant Major Chokchai Tadsee, who has now retired. He pawned his government gun which had been issued to him in his safe-keeping.

    In fact we did not want to hurry or rush the officials to bring the case to court, because we mentioned at the start that we wanted the investigation and the results to go as far as possible. The DSI claimed that it was necessary to interview all the suspects within 84 days of their detention. We told them that if they were so hurried with the work, we felt that the evidence would not be as comprehensive as it could be. We were worried that the prosecution case might be weak and that the suspects could go free even though they are the ones who committed the crime.

    It appears that they claimed that they must put the suspects in jail according to the law. We on the other hand wondered why, since there was no huge progress regarding the case yet, it was necessary for all this rush if they were taking the case seriously. They told us it was alright as they would interrogate the witnesses later after the suspects were put in prison.

    Do you still insist that Charoen’s murder is related to conflicts with capitalists who have influence?

    We believe in the fact that Charoen never had any personal problems with anyone. He did not gamble. We can say that he did not bring any harm to anyone, apart from the conflict with the capitalists. He opposed the interests of the investor groups and gangsters with influence. The long struggle against the power plant which resulted in victory led to huge losses for the investors as the plant could not be built, especially for the influential group who is now being charged for ordering the murder of Charoen.

    The influential group in the province worked for the power plant investors during the election. This is the group that is mixed up in encroaching on a large amount of public land.

    Although, the case is now in the hands of the prosecutor in court, has it progressed much?

    We have been following the case so far. Although the process is delayed because of all kinds of factors, we still believe that it can still be solved. After four years, we still say the same thing as in the first year after Charoen’s murder, that the case is not going anywhere. For the court procedure, we state that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.

    Until today, although four years have passed, not all witnesses have been questioned. The most recent incident was last 12-13 June when police and DSI staff were questioned as witnesses. But this working procedure is not something we can have faith in. There is no real intention behind it, especially on the public prosecutor’s side.

    We understand the difficulties of the investigators, both DSI staff and police officers, as they do not work only on this case. However, they should call upon the witnesses to attempt to remember the events, as it happened four years back. This is a procedure that the prosecutor has the power to follow and should follow.

    The prosecutor who is working on this case, I have to say that he is not with it and has not done his homework. During questioning, witnesses say things slowly. Some can remember while others cannot. But they are trying to forget about this case. When they start, they go straight into examination because the public prosecutor hasn’t done any homework on the case.

    How do you see the progress in the prosecution?

    The work that the first prosecutor did was greatly appreciated. We can see from his work that he was responsible and had done his preparation. He was truthful to his vocation. However, after the prosecutor was changed or after the restructuring of the persons in charge of the case, we see the views and the way that officials in the justice system think.

    What do you feel toward the two suspected gunmen who died in prison?

    The two suspects at the time of their death were only suspects. I am still questioning what is the practice in the justice procedure for protecting suspects? How is it possible that both gunmen would die of illness while in prison? Today, we have high technology, especially medical technology. If it is not something serious and critical, how is it possible that two young men could die from illness?

    Mr. Prachuap died before Mr. Saneh in Prachuab Kiri Khan provincial jail. When he died, the case was still in its initial stages. We could see that if the case continued in the province it might not be fair for us. There is a weakness in the case procedure since the defendants did not have to be present at the consideration of the case, as a lawyer can represent them. This is unfair. In the system there, one of the defendants, Mr. Thanu Hinkaew, is a lawyer. We don’t want to criticize but one thing you have to accept is that Thailand has a patron-client system in the system, especially the government system. Therefore we requested for the case to be transferred to Bangkok.

    After the case was transferred, Mr. Saneh stayed at Khlong Prem Prison in Bangkok. At the first witness hearings in Bangkok, we met Mr. Saneh and he was very strong at every hearing. During that time, we met him very often. In some months, we met him three times, especially from June to August 2006. We remember that we met him the last time on 21 July 2006 which was his last interrogation, before he died on 2 August.

    At the time, Mr. Saneh did not look as if he was exhausted. He only had a fever. His lawyer announced that his client had a fever and asked for Mr. Saneh to be allowed to sit in the cells in the basement of the court. But a villager who saw Mr. Saneh that day said that he was poisoned.

    Why did the villagers believe that Mr. Saneh was poisoned?

    We do not know how they could see that, because at the time, we had gone to follow the case since the villager said that Charoen’s case wasn’t a personal issue and that he didn’t have personal problems or conflicts with anyone. At the time, I made an effort to say that it was not like the villagers said, because Mr. Saneh might have been upset and being in prison which isn’t very nice, and that gave him a fever. But the villagers said, if you do not believe it, just wait a few days and Mr. Saneh will be dead.

    It turned out that after six days, Mr. Saneh died. It was in news. When the court convened again on 4 August 2006 and the official from the Department of Corrections made a statement on this, the judge was surprised that he could have died because at the last hearing he was still healthy. We were skeptical about his death. We had to say that it was an unnatural death.

    When the Department of Corrections official stated that he died from disease, it proved nothing. It was just a statement about his condition. The accusations that Mr. Saneh made under examination regarding the real culprits were recorded on video. Today, it’s taken a long time for the video evidence to get to court. We’ve had to keep pushing and asking for 4 years. The video evidence has just be brought into court although it should have been there from the start.

    The final evidence that we have to bring to court, apart from the case record is the forensic evidence. Much of it came from the autopsy done by Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunan. This is about the bullet, the spiral marks on the bullet, bullet casing and all that, and fingerprints. It is really difficult to follow this evidence.

    Do you still have any hope in the justice process?

    When asked whether we are still hopeful with Court of Justice, we feel that we are following the case to discover and to understand the legal process more than to see what the details are. Years back, Charoen once told us that if he was murdered in the struggle, the villagers should bring his body to Government House. He believed that justice will never happen. Back then, after Charoen was murdered, we still felt that we should parade his body around Government House.

    We will have to experience and prove whether in the end what Charoen said is the truth.

    What lessons have you learned for future struggles?

    After our years of follow-up on the case, we have to discuss at the 4th anniversary of Charoen’s murder whether we want to end our pursuit of this case or whether we should continue our pursuit of justice to the end so that we can explain to society that what the legal system is like.

    Charoen once told us that if his body is not cremated in front of the government house, justice might not happen. If I remember correctly when Charoen was murdered, we still believe what Charoen said.

    In previous cases many struggles with the justice system, both victims and those accused of crimes in our struggle, we come to the question of what the death of Charoen or his corpse teaches us about our society. We need to evaluate and discussed among ourselves how we want this process to continue.

    Translated by Pokpong Lawansiri

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