THAILAND: System still shields police killers and torturers

Over two and a half years have passed since Kietisak Thitboonkrong was found tortured to death and dumped in a rural area of northeastern Thailand. Investigations by the National Human Rights Commission and others have pointed the finger of guilt straight at the Kalasin district police, in whose custody he was last seen a few days earlier. Yet despite the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) under the justice ministry taking up the case since mid-2005, no police have so far been prosecuted. On the contrary, the case investigating officer has been promoted.

The Kalasin police appear to have killed repeatedly. The Asian Human Rights Commission alone has documented some 24 incidents between 2004 and 2006. There is little doubt that there are others: bodies have never been found, or have been cremated before proper identification. The intense fear of the police that hangs over the province means that the families of victims and witnesses are terrified to speak out. Their fear is justified. A witness in Kietisak’s case was warned that if she told the truth she would “hang like that kid”.

The characteristic of most of these cases, and most incidents of police torture and abuse in Thailand, is that the victims are ordinary persons accused of small criminal offences: robbery of a motorcycle, theft of some jewellery, gambling with friends. Sometimes torture is used to extract a confession; whether the victim is a real suspect or not is irrelevant. The torture is often extremely brutal: Kietisak had his genitals crushed; others have had theirs squeezed, burnt and electrocuted.

Routine torture and killing send a message to society that the police are both dangerous and unstoppable. Family members who try to complain, such as Kietisak’s grandmother, find themselves up against the entire local police structure, not just individual officers. Superiors of accused police at all levels routinely defend their subordinates against accusations of wrongdoing, rather than investigate or discipline them; a police station commander whose men were accused by a forensic scientist of extrajudicial killing sued her himself. In other cases the alleged perpetrators have sued family members, such as the mother of one torture victim in Ayutthaya. Investigations go on for years without result, and in the meantime the accused remain at their posts. Even in prominent cases, such as the trial of five police in connection with the disappearance of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, the accused continue in active service, despite criminal inquiries or charges pending against them.

Little wonder that victims take some cash and disappear, rather than seeking out justice. Ordinary victims, their families and general public understand only that the law-enforcement system cannot stop the police, for the reason that they control it. There are no effective independent channels for receiving complaints and investigating them, despite many calls for their establishment, including from the United Nations.  Prosecutors eat from the hands of the police and the courts defer to the side of authority rather than applying the benefit of the doubt as required in principle. The perpetrators have the psychological and institutional reassurances that they are safe; it is everyone else that needs to watch out.

In January, the interim government of Thailand acknowledged the grave systemic defects in the police force and announced that it would work to make necessary changes. It also invited international experts to assist. However, since that time police reform has again gone off the national agenda.

In fact, the entire criminal investigation system in Thailand has been rolling backwards since September last year, despite attempts to create an appearance of the opposite. The police force is now headed by an officer who has publicly threatened a leading human rights defender, for which he was never admonished by the interim prime minister. One of his deputies was earlier sacked from his job as head of the DSI for obstruction of human rights cases, and is also alleged to have perverted justice. All investigating agencies, including quasi-independent ones like the DSI, have been placed under orders of the revived cold-war Internal Security Operations Command, which is headed by the army commander. There has been no progress towards improved witness protection, further institutionalisation of credible independent forensic science agencies, the setting up of a missing persons’ centre or introduction of laws to prohibit torture and forced disappearance.

The problems of policing in Thailand are more than a century old and they will not be solved quickly. However, effective handling of a small number of cases, leading to prosecutions and imprisonment of police killers and torturers, even under the existing deficient laws, would send a strong message that the “catch me if you can” game will no longer be tolerated.

The cases in Kalasin are only a couple of years old. Evidence exists upon which to bring the killers to justice. The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the government of Thailand not to waste any more time in identifying and prosecuting the police responsible for the torture and murder of Kietisak Thitboonkrong and the other victims there. Their conviction would do far more at this time towards ending police impunity in Thailand than wishy-washy talk about police reform and decentralisation, which under the current circumstances lacks credibility.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-085-2007
Countries : Thailand,
Issues : Administration of justice, Police violence,