Next Thursday a court in Yala will decide on a very important case for victims of arbitrary detention and forced disappearance in Thailand. The court is due to give its view on what happened to Mayateh Maranoh (shown above with his son), who has not been seen since he was taken away by a paramilitary group in mid-2007.
According to his family, a group of rangers from Unit 4111 surrounded their house on June 24 and put Mayateh in a vehicle. They also took his car, mobile phone and licensed gun.
Mayateh’s wife and two children watched as he was driven away. It was the last time they saw him. After some days of searching, his wife, Suma-idoh, learned that the unit of poorly-trained local recruits had that evening held him at a school some five kilometers away.
Her constant efforts to interest state officials in her husband’s disappearance failed. The police did not investigate. The Department of Special Investigation under the Justice Ministry also declined to take up the case.
It fell to Suma-idoh to lodge a complaint herself. On August 20 of this year she submitted a request for an inquiry at the provincial court under Section 90 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
This is Thailand’s equivalent of the habeas corpus writ. Under the section, a person who believes that someone else has been or is being held in custody against the law can apply for the court to summon the concerned officials and investigate. If the person is still alive and is being detained illegally, the court can free him or her.
The section has attracted growing interest from human rights lawyers and the relatives of illegally detained and disappeared persons in Thailand. Last year courts ordered the release of hundreds of men who had been forced to attend vocational training on threat of being charged with criminal offences. But they did not find fault with the men’s captors.
Those men were all clearly in army custody and the question before the courts then concerned the legality of the holding order. In the current case, the question is about what happened to Mayateh, and whether or not the ranger unit with whom he was last seen has responsibility.
So far no state security agents have been held liable under Section 90 for a forced disappearance of this sort, which is why the case is significant.
The paramilitary unit’s leader, Col. Tim Ruantoh, admitted to the court that he had “invited” Mayateh to assist with inquiries about an arson attack on a school where the disappeared man was caretaker, but insisted that Mayateh had come voluntarily and left afterwards.
The colonel noted that at the time there had been a special joint operation in the area and large numbers of people had been held for periods of questioning, on the basis of lists sent from various agencies. The lists classified people according to three types: suspects, informants and invitees.
No records were kept concerning those in the last category, even though they might have to stay with the security forces for up to a week by virtue of an emergency decree imposed on the southern provinces since 2005.
The problem his testimony presents for the court is reminiscent of that posed by the testimonies of police and government officials in a well-documented disappearance that occurred during the emergency rule that Indira Gandhi once imposed on India.
On March 1, 1976, police in Calicut detained a final-year engineering student named P. Rajan. He was not seen again. Rajan’s family hunted for him everywhere without success. As in Mayateh’s case, the police denied ever having arrested Rajan, although witnesses said he had been put into a police van and taken away.
In 1977, the young man’s father lodged a case in the Kerala high court against the home minister and other government officials. The issue for the court was, as in the case before the judges in Yala, whether or not an order could be made where the accused officers denied having detained the person in the first place.
The high court justices found that where it could be shown that the person had last been in the custody of the officials, the burden fell on them to explain what had happened to him afterwards.
“If we are not satisfied about the answer by the respondents … as to how they have dealt with the son of the petitioner and where he is at present we should be able to deal with the matter,” the court held. “Whether he is still in police custody and if not how such custody came to an end has to be found out,” it ruled.
This is the crux of the matter before the court in Yala too. At 7:20 p.m. on June 24, 2007, Mayateh Maranoh was with personnel of Unit 4111. That was the last time he was seen. This fact has been established.
As to what happened to him after that, it is not enough for Col. Tim Ruantoh to say that they let him go and don’t know where he went. The unit’s failure to keep proper records of its activities does not excuse it. Nor does the fact that it was not responsible for drawing up and issuing lists on the basis of which it was operating.
Whether or not Mayateh is still in custody, and if not, how such custody came to an end, has to be found out. As in Rajan’s case, all this rests heavily on what the court decides next week.