Tag Archives: Hong Kong

A 15-year trial is not a fair trial

This week the criminal court in Southern Bangkok sentenced four men to lengthy jail terms for their alleged roles in a plot to kill the former president of Thailand’s Supreme Court. The judges convicted the two organizers of the purported crime to 25 years each; the gunmen, from whom the police obtained confessions, to more than 16.

The court’s verdict is wrong. It is wrong not because the facts of the case favor the defendants, but because it took over 90 judges more than 15 years to reach this point. Continue reading

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A first step towards ending torture in Thailand

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Thailand at the start of the month acceded to the U.N. Convention against Torture, after years of work by many persons, among them human rights advocates and personnel in its justice ministry; the latter having convinced those in other parts of government that agreeing to the treaty’s terms would not be against their interests.

Torture is widespread in Thailand, largely because it remains nigh impossible to hold police or soldiers legally accountable for their crimes. When over fifty years ago police general Phao Sriyanond, himself an army officer, said that, “There is nothing under the sun that the Thai police cannot do,” he did not mean that the police were indomitable but rather that they were untouchable. His legacy survives today. The former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra pointedly quoted Phao when launching the deadly “war on drugs” in 2003.

Every year, rights defenders in Thailand document hundreds of cases of alleged torture while thousands more go unreported. Public campaigns are limited as victims are justifiably afraid and have few hopes for redress. Not a single accused has been brought before a court of law. Even in the most blatant cases, such as where people have been taken from police stations to hospitals with burns covering their genitalia, the perpetrators have remained beyond reach [see: here and here]. In the south, emergency regulations have placed the army so far outside of the justice system that the victims of its excesses do not even consider complaining to criminal investigators or the courts.

Given the prevalence and severity of torture in Thailand, and the impunity enjoyed by torturers, joining this treaty is an important step that must be backed by the legal and institutional changes needed to give it effect. They include the following.

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Criticism is not contempt

18-the-upright-bench.jpgMany people have expressed genuine concern about the expanded role of the judiciary under Thailand’s new army-backed constitution, which was pushed through a referendum and passed into law this August.

Three top judges are now obliged to sit on panels that will select around half of the senate, as well as have more say on appointments to independent bodies: among them the commissions for elections, state audits and human rights. The Supreme Court has been given new powers to step into electoral disputes, and also to appoint interim members to the counter-corruption agency.

Around the world, judicial officers enjoy special defenses against attacks on their professional and institutional integrity. In Thailand, harsh penalties for contempt of court and criminal libel have helped to dampen public criticism not only of court rulings but of the work done by judges in general.

However, there have been times that widespread argument over big cases has spilled back into the courts. For instance, after three former election commissioners were jailed in 2006, eleven of their supporters were given suspended jail terms for contempt, and warned that they could face further charges if they did not shut up. The lawyer of the then-prime minister was also found guilty of contempt after giving a negative opinion of the verdict in an interview.

Such rulings have made latent critics justifiably afraid of openly confronting Thailand’s courts. Now that judges have an enlarged and increasingly prescribed political role on top of their judicial responsibilities, many wonder how far public debate on their work will be allowed and what the consequences may be, both for the country’s judiciary and for its degraded political system.

So let’s be clear on at least one thing. Without regard to other factors, the criticizing of judges is not only legitimate, but also necessary for a robust and responsive judiciary. Criticism of court is not synonymous with contempt of court.

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Courts in cahoots

A recording has been made public that indicates the extent to which Thailand’s top jurists are compromised and their conduct, censurable.

An unidentified top echelon bureaucrat apparently recorded his phone conversation with the secretary of the Supreme Court, Virat Chinvinijkul, and a judge of the court, Pairoj Navanuch, during May 2006. Neither the then-secretary nor the judge has denied the veracity of the recording, in which the three openly discuss charges pending against members of the Election Commission. The former secretary, now himself a judge, has dismissed it as containing nothing new. This is not true. Quite aside from its contents, the recording has opened a small window on the working methods of Thailand’s higher courts, and their apparent inability to distinguish between the upholding of law and the playing of politics.

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