A court in Bangkok on 10 August 2011 sentenced a torture victim to two years in prison for having spoken out against his alleged torturers. Police Major General Chakthip Chaijinda brought the criminal complaint (Black Case No. 2161/2552) against Mr Suderueman Malae, one of the clients of forcibly abducted and disappeared human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit. The police major general claimed that he was falsely implicated in the torture of Suderueman and a number of other men. The basis for his denial of involvement was in part that although he had been listed as heading up a unit responsible for the arrest and detention of Suderueman in February 2004, he had not actually been present at the time. In other words, the police records of the case were themselves at very least inaccurate, and possibly fabricated. The policeman reasoned that for this reason he could not be held to account.
The Asian Human Rights Commission has followed this case closely and is aware that Pol. Maj. Gen. Chakthip apparently had no firm evidence to prove his claim that he had not been present when the record showed that he had; however, although the Criminal Court in Bangkok found his explanation odd, it seems to have taken his word for it. The court found, in part on the basis of an investigation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission into the case, that there was no evidence to support the complaint brought by Suderueman against Pol. Maj. Gen. Chakthip. Consequently, the court convicted Suderueman and sentenced him to the jail term under sections 173 and 174 of the Criminal Code, for maliciously giving false information to inquiry officers, even though no evidence exists to show that the naming of Chakthip was in any way malicious.
The Asian Human Rights Commission unreservedly condemns this ruling, for the following reasons.
Suderueman and other victims of torture whom Somchai had been representing at the time that Royal Thai Police abducted and presumably killed him on 12 March 2004 testified under oath in court on 28 March 2005 that they had been tortured. The manner of torture included electrocution, urination on the head and face, smacking on the base of the ears, and assault on the body. The victims’ testimonies were consistent not only with one another but also with the accounts of other victims of torture in the south of Thailand. On the other hand, the testimonies of the police in the same trial consistently showed an aptitude for deceit and fabrication: an aptitude that at higher ranks was exceeded only by the display of arrogance of men who have committed crimes so many times for which they have escaped responsibility that they are supremely confident, and with good reason, that they will do the same again.
The impunity for torture and other gross abuses of human rights that these men enjoy is guaranteed not only by assurances that they will not be held responsible, but also that arrangements exist to enable them to exact revenge upon those persons who have the temerity to complain. It requires both deliberate decisions not to do certain things that should have been done, and to do certain other things that should not have been done. These decisions involve people in all key agencies, and in particular, depend upon the role of the courts as guarantors of failed prosecution where prosecution must fail, and successful prosecution where it must succeed.
Impunity for the torturers of Suderueman required, to begin with, the thwarting of any effective investigation of both the abduction and presumed killing of his lawyer, Somchai Neelaphaijit, and the acquittal of the accused in that case. Since the case attracted huge domestic and international interest, to give the appearance of some sort of justice being done, the court reached a compromise ruling in which it acknowledged police involvement and convicted one of the five accused of a minor offence.
Impunity then required a process that included the mysterious disappearance of the one convicted policeman, and his subsequent acquittal in an appeal ruling. It also required the persistent and deliberate refusal to take any steps to address seriously the question of “What happened to lawyer Somchai?”
Once the case of Somchai was utterly perverted through the machinations of the police and other agencies, the way was opened for action against his family, his former clients and any other witnesses. This action included deliberate failure to protect the family or witnesses effectively, such that one of the torture victims, Abdulloh Abukaree, was also abducted and forcibly disappeared on 11 December 2009. Another is in jail awaiting the outcome of an appeal on a conviction in another case unrelated to that over which the men were tortured and in which Pol. Maj. Gen. Chakthip was, on paper, involved. Finally, it required the use of state resources not to investigate the crimes of the police, but the crime of their victim: that is, the crime of impertinence for making a complaint against the police.
Thus, the human rights priorities of the state in Thailand are made patently clear: not to investigate alleged abuses of human rights but to investigate, prosecute and imprison persons who allege such abuses. Not to criminalize torture and imprison torturers, but the criminalize the complaint of torture and imprison the tortured. The message, which comes from the police but is broadcast through the courts as their mouthpiece is in its essence, “Don’t try to stop us. All that will happen is that we will destroy your life. What we want to do, we can do.”
This is a message that people in Thailand already know well. Consequently, the number of complainants of extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, torture and other gross abuses of human rights in Thailand remain few, not because the incidence of such abuses is low but because only the bravest persons, or those thrust into the spotlight like Suderueman, speak out. Most of those who do complain never complete the process of bringing a case to court, withdrawing under a combination of threats and offers of money to remain silent. Of those who do, some end up like Suderueman, prosecuted for their victimhood. Others end up in hiding, or dead.
The court’s ruling against Suderueman is deserving of the strongest condemnation not only because it constitutes a further act of state violence committed upon someone who has already suffered immensely and irrevocably due to the violence of the state, but also because it constitutes a statement of utter contempt for the rights of all victims of abuses at the hands of state authorities in Thailand. Although people there have in recent years made great strides to challenge the culture of impunity and the political system that has for so long enabled it, the case of Suderueman illustrates vividly how much further they have to go. For the time being, at least, all the courts of Thailand have to offer the public for these efforts is contempt for basic human rights. The people of Thailand deserve, and demand, better than this.