A court has held that police and civilian officials who killed 19 young men in the far south of Thailand early on April 28, 2004, were acting in self-defense. The defendants said they shot the men because they had been under attack, and the Songkhla provincial court ruled in September that the policemen’s testimonies were consistent and believable.
To reach this finding, the court had to ignore the facts. Some of the evidence it heard but omitted from its verdict included the testimony of a national human rights commissioner. She told the judges that her agency had uncovered nothing to prove that the dead men, aged 18 to 34, had been carrying weapons. Nor was there any discernible damage to the Sabayoi market police post that had supposedly been assaulted.
She also told the court that the victims’ profiles did not fit with the official account that they were violent radicals. A number of them were football players who had been preparing to go and ask a local politician for team sponsorship. Some had pregnant wives.
All but four died in a restaurant after taking shelter there. Its owner testified that three unarmed men had run inside from the direction of the police post, while the others had been standing around out front. None of the group fired back or otherwise threatened the ten police and two armed civilians. His testimony has been backed by eyewitness accounts from laborers, local residents and a schoolteacher.
The shooting went on sporadically for about an hour. When the officers’ work was done, they had 19 broken civilian corpses on their hands, and not one casualty among themselves.
A local doctor who conducted the autopsies recorded fatal wounds to the head and chest areas of most victims, suggesting that the shooters had aimed to kill rather than disable their targets. Fourteen had injuries to the head, and some had had their skulls smashed. Six had been shot from behind. One had at least 15 bullet wounds.
But this doctor had no special training and left many important details out of his report, such as the presence or absence of gunpowder on the bodies, which would indicate the range at which they were shot. Nor did he give sufficient details about wounds that were not from bullets, which could have aided expert analysis later.
The investigating officers did not do their jobs properly either. They did not send the corpses to a hospital promptly, but kept them in a nearby field under heavy rain. They took photographs showing some victims with guns or grenades, but gave no fingerprinting evidence to show that the men had really been holding them.
All of this appears to have mattered little to the court. Its findings may prove nothing about Sabayoi, but they speak volumes of the enormous obstacles faced by civilians seeking justice for acts of state violence in Thailand.
For one, in order to have a case brought against a policeman, soldier or other officer accused of killing someone in the course of duty, the matter must initially go through a special inquest. It cannot be filed directly in a criminal court.
The judges in this instance were not deciding on the guilt or innocence of the police accused of killing the men, but merely whether or not there was a case to be answered. They have all but ensured that there will be none.
And even if there is, what can be expected of it? Three army officers, in 2006, were found in another inquest to have been responsible for the deaths of 28 young men in the south on the same day as those in Sabayoi. The case file was returned to the public prosecutor. Nothing has been heard of it since.
In Thailand, as there is no agency besides the police capable of investigating crimes of this sort, inquiries are routinely botched, covered over and faked. Prosecutors grind up and submit whatever rubbish they get rather than acting as monitors against the work of shoddy and corrupt investigators.
It is also obvious from this case that judges continue to put far more store in witness testimonies than in scientific evidence. The opinions of a prominent forensic scientist made no apparent difference to the outcome. Nor did the post mortem report, which was inadequate but nonetheless revealing about the manner in which the 19 were gunned down, suggesting anything but self-defense.
And among testimonies, those of the police inevitably trump all others. Civilian eyewitnesses and a rights commissioner were unable to tilt the bench toward the facts. Because the police could string together a vaguely coherent narrative and stick with it, they were held to be right.
Here is another coherent narrative of what happened in Sabayoi. A jumpy, tired and heavily armed police unit went looking for a fight and chased down a group of young men whom they tortured and shot to death in a public restaurant. Whether or not the court in Songkhla chooses to believe it, it’s the more plausible story.