THAILAND: Police compensated for committing murder in the line of “duty”

The Asian Human Rights Commission is shocked to learn that a regional police commander in Thailand has recently given a substantial financial gift to five police officers convicted of murdering a teenager, Kiettisak Thitboonkrong, during the 2004 “war on drugs”.

AHRC-STM-207-2012.JPGOn 25 September 2012, Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong Khongpetchsak, the Police Region 4 commander, presented Pol. Lt. Col. Sumitr Nanthasathit and his four colleagues with 100,000 baht (USD3265). This news was posted on the website of Police Region 4 (see here). According to the website, this money is intended as welfare support to the five police for “having been found guilty resulting from carrying about their duties at the Kalasin police station”. (Photo Source: Royal Thai Police Region 4)

In a statement released shortly after the court decision in this case (AHRC-STM-157-2012), the AHRC welcomed the landmark conviction as a clear sign that the judiciary in Thailand was at last willing to hold the police to account for their use of extrajudicial violence against citizens. The action by Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong Khongpetchsak, by contrast, indicates a clear unwillingness of the police to draw a line between duty and extrajudicial violence, and also indicates unequivocal support of the police leadership for the use of extrajudicial violence against citizens.

Let us briefly revisit the facts of the case, in order to situate the actions of the regional police commander in compensating subordinates for an act of murder committed in the line of “duty”. On 30 July 2012, in Black Case No. 3252/2552, 3466/2552, the Criminal Court found five out of the six police officers accused of murdering Kiettisak Thitboonkrong, age 17, in 2004. The six defendants were Pol. Snr. Sgt. Maj. Angkarn Kammoonna, Pol. Snr. Sgt. Maj. Sutthinant Noenthing, Pol. Snr. Sgt. Maj. Phansilp Uppanant, Pol. Lt. Col. Samphao Indee, Pol. Col. Montree Sriboonloue, and Pol. Lt. Col. Sumitr Nanthasathit, all officers stationed in Kalasin Province, northeast Thailand. The police had arrested Kiettisak on 16 July 2004 for allegedly stealing a motorcycle. When his family heard this news, they went to the police station and attempted to talk to him. After returning multiple times, his grandmother was allowed to witness his interrogation on 22 July 2004 and told to wait for him to be bailed out later that day. But Kiettisak never came home and several days later his mutilated body was found in a neighbouring province. Following his death, his family launched a campaign to campaign to investigate and hold the police in Kalasin accountable for his murder and the murders of 27 other individuals by police of the same station during and following the so-called “war on drugs”. After an extraordinary effort on their part, the court finally reached its verdict and sentenced three police officers to death for their actions, while one it sentenced to life imprisonment, and one to seven years in prison.

Rather than holding state officials who used extrajudicial violence against these citizens to account, in Thailand the perpetrators of crimes have often been rewarded. The alleged police abductors and killers of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, for instance, obtained promotions even as a criminal case was proceeding against them in court. Others accused of torture and killings have been transferred to “inactive” postings, considered discipline enough in cases that obtain a large amount of public attention and outcry. But in most cases, the perpetrators have enjoyed impunity by the expediency of inaction. They are tacitly and conveniently ignored. Consequently, one of the long-term effects of these cumulative practices has been the further consolidation of impunity for state violence in Thailand.

Therefore, the case of Kiettisak Thitboonkrong stands out among other cases of extrajudicial killing in Thailand over the last ten years, in which courts have been unwilling to hold state officials to account, including the cases of the mass deaths in custody following the Tak Bai incident of October 2004, and the April-May 2010 killings in Bangkok. Even in cases in which courts have ruled that a citizen has died in custody due to the actions of state officials, such as the March 2009 torture and death of Imam Yapa Kaseng, the actions of officials have been classed as matters of official “duty” and the perpetrators have thereby been exempted from prosecution.

The action by Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong Khongpetchsak is an attempt to undo the courageous stand taken by the Criminal Court and thereby restore the “normal” order of things, in which police enjoy impunity for torture, killing, enforced disappearance and other gross abuses of human rights. Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong’s financial gift to the five police officers, and the assertion that it is to aid them in facing a conviction that arose from actions they took while carrying out their duty speaks to a culture of non-accountability that pervades the Royal Thai Police. It is an act that defies the court’s attempt to place the police under the very laws that they claim to enforce. Indeed, it is an act that erases the line between law and extrajudicial violence altogether, by implying that to torture and murder a young man are acts that are consonant with the normal course of a police officer’s duty, and not acts for which he ought to be punished.

Further, the lack of clarity as to whether or not the financial gift was an official gift by the police force or a personal gift by Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong raises an additional concern about the form of impunity present within the Thai police. The report about the gift on the Police Region 4 website included a text description of the gift as well as three photographs, including one which showed the presentation of the money from Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong to the five police officers. Notably, the five police officers were still in uniform, since they are remaining in the police service while on bail pending appeal, despite the fact that they are convicted criminals. Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong, on the other hand, was out of uniform. While this choice of clothing may have been meant to signal that the gift was an unofficial, personal one, by posting the photos and news on the Police Region 4 website, the message of official approval for the gift is clear. Whether impunity for extrajudicial violence is ensured through official police policy, or through unofficial-yet-acknowledged networks of patronage, the message from the police to citizens is “we will protect ourselves, not you”. It is a message with which the people of Thailand are all too familiar.

The Asian Human Rights Commission calls on Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong specifically, and the Thai police apparatus broadly, to take a clear stand against extrajudicial violence in the case of the murder of Kiettisak Thitboonkrong and in so doing, make the distinction between duty and murder. It calls on Pol. Lt. Gen. Sompong to take back his financial gift. It calls on the Royal Thai Police force to suspend without pay the five policemen found guilty of heinous criminal offences subject to the outcome of their appeal cases, and to cease rewarding and instead begin punishing those in its ranks who are known torturers and killers. Unfortunately, the number of such policemen in Thailand is not small, and the process of rooting them out of the ranks will be long and arduous, but it must begin somewhere. The Criminal Court has given the police force an opportunity in this case to do just that. The Royal Thai Police ought to seize this opportunity to at last start acting like a professional force, rather than like a criminal gang in uniform, and join with the court to oppose murderous policemen, instead of defying the court to protect the killers in its ranks who justify their every deed in the name of “duty”.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-207-2012
Countries : Thailand,
Issues : Corruption, Police violence,