THAILAND: Death in custody of 61-year old grandfather jailed for allegedly sending four SMS messages
The Asian Human Rights Commission wishes to express our grief and extend our deepest condolences to the family of Mr. Amphon Tangnoppakul, who was found dead in prison custody on 8 May 2012. Amphon (also known to his family as "Ah Kong" or "grandfather," and to the public at "Uncle SMS"), a 61-year-old man, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on 23 November 2011 in Black Case No. 311/2554. The Criminal Court convicted him of four violations under section 112 of the Criminal Code and under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act for allegedly sending four SMS messages to Mr. Somkiat Klongwattanasak, personal secretary of the former prime minister, Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva. These four SMS messages allegedly contained vulgar language defaming the Thai queen and insulting the honour of the monarchy.
As the AHRC noted at the time of Amphon's conviction (AHRC-STM-180-2011), the prosecution's actions raised serious questions about the validity of evidence in cases of this sort, and pointed to lacunae in the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, which is in fact broad enough to cover all forms of electronic communication; not only those on computer. The prosecution argument rested on the assertion that the mobile phone that sent the four allegedly criminal SMS messages had the same IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identifying) number as the mobile phone which Amphon had used to call his children. Despite Amphon's assertion that he did not send the SMS messages in question, and did not even know how to send an SMS message, the court sentenced him to a lengthy term in prison.
Yet Amphon Tangnoppakul's death in custody raises an additional layer of questions and concerns about the Thai justice system. Amphon had been in detention since being formally charged on 18 January 2011. At the time he was charged, he was already suffering from oral cancer for which he had already been receiving regular treatment, and his counsel immediately requested bail while awaiting trial on this basis. The court denied this request, as it did seven subsequent requests made before his trial, at the time of his conviction, and up until several months before his death.
The repeated denial of Amphon's requests for bail itself raises serious questions about the obscure process by which a prisoner awaiting trial--or awaiting the consideration of a Court of First Instance decision by the Appeal Court--is granted or denied bail in Thailand. At the time of Amphon's last request for bail, in February 2012, the Appeal Court ruled that his illness, which constituted one of the grounds for the request, did "not appear to be life-threatening". On the same reasoning, the courts in Thailand have denied bail in other cases where it would seem to be justified on medical grounds, such as the case of Ms. Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul who suffers from severe jaw disease. Coupled with known deficiencies in the prison healthcare system in Thailand, the repeated refusal of bail to Amphon seems to reflect a manifest disregard among members of the judiciary for the wellbeing of detainees in the country's jails.
Given that the tragic death of Amphon in prison has followed repeated refusals of bail while his appeal was under consideration, and in view of the custodial responsibility for him that the state undertook in denying bail, including responsibility to provide him with the necessary healthcare, the Asian Human Rights Commission calls on the government of Thailand to ensure that an autopsy and post-mortem inquest in line with the Criminal Procedure Code are carried out fully and transparently. Preliminary information in this case indicates that Amphon entered the prison hospital on Friday, but that unavailability of laboratory services meant that he could not be treated over the weekend. We also call for the government to provide much more open and complete accounting of the prison healthcare system in Thailand than what is currently available publicly, and to do so with reference to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. With regards to the death of Amphon we wish in particular to highlight and call on the government to respond in detail to section 22(2) of the rules, that:
"Sick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals. Where hospital facilities are provided in an institution, their equipment, furnishings and pharmaceutical supplies shall be proper for the medical care and treatment of sick prisoners, and there shall be a staff of suitable trained officers"; and, to section 25(2), that:
"The medical officer shall report to the director whenever he considers that a prisoner's physical or mental health has been or will be injuriously affected by continued imprisonment or by any condition of imprisonment."
Finally, the AHRC wishes to underscore its insistence, set out in previous public statements, that the government of Thailand repeal section 112 of the Criminal Code--which provides penalties of three to fifteen years for any alleged insult, defamation, or threat against the king, queen, heir-apparent, and regent; and thereby demands unquestioned allegiance to the monarchy in Thailand--and release all remaining individuals facing charges or convicted of violating the section, and related provisions of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. In the years since the 19 September 2006 coup, many people have paid a high price for alleged disloyalty to the monarchy, with sentences whose length is comparable to those for persons convicted of drug trafficking and murder. The death in custody of Amphon Tangnoppakul indicates that the price of loyalty is too high: a man has paid for four SMS messages with his life, and his family has paid with the loss of their husband, father and grandfather.