THAILAND: The impossibility of complaint against the police

On July 17 the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) issued an appeal on the alleged torture, armed robbery, illegal detention, and attempted rape and extortion of two persons in Saraburi, just northeast of Bangkok in Thailand. According to Uthai Boonnom, he and his partner were taken–at gunpoint and blindfolded–to a house in the forest where the police assaulted him and took all their possessions before settling down to an evening of drinking and gambling. That night they forced them to sign documents that later served as confessions that they had been buying and selling drugs. Uthai was offered a way out in exchange for cash, but as he could not produce the money immediately, he and his partner were detained. 

All that happened in March 2002. But it is only the first part of the story. The second part began when Uthai and his partner started complaining that they had been assaulted and had confessions taken by force. They had some evidence to back their claims: for instance, the medical report of the prison nurse that recorded evidence of the assault on Uthai, later backed by the nurse’s testimony in court. A police investigator from the same police station as the alleged perpetrators–in effect, a subordinate of at least one of the accused police–came to visit and document their complaints while in prison. But the court went with the police version, and the two were sentenced to long jail terms, which they are now appealing. 

Meanwhile, Uthai began writing. From 2002 to 2005 he wrote complaints to the prime minister, justice minister, privy councillor, National Counter Corruption Commission, courts, chief of police, attorney general, ombudsman and Department of Special Investigation (DSI), among others. In 2006 his case was also submitted to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. In fact, he wrote to anyone whom he thought might be able to do something to open an investigation into his alleged illegal arrest, torture and imprisonment. 

The results of Uthai’s complaints were not commensurate with his efforts. Most of the offices to whom he wrote never bothered to reply. And the replies that he did get were not promising. The prime minister’s office replied that it had referred the case to Police Region 1 headquarters. But Police Region 1 never contacted Uthai. The justice ministry replied that the case had been referred to its Department of Rights and Liberties Protection. The department replied that it had checked with the police and they had said that the arrest was legal. It indirectly blamed Uthai for not making a complaint with the investigating officer immediately following his arrest, or launching criminal proceedings against the alleged perpetrators. The ombudsman replied that he could do nothing as the case is still in court. The DSI replied that the case did not come within its criteria for investigation. Somehow, the alleged illegal arrest, detention, torture, armed robbery, attempted extortion and rape and a host of other offences committed by a group of Saraburi police did not fall within the purview of any of Thailand’s many government and policing agencies. In short, everyone passed the buck, or just ignored the case altogether. 

This is the reality of making complaints against police in Thailand. It is not in any way an exceptional case. In this reality, it is impossible to make a complaint about Thai police and expect that it will be handled credibly, effectively and seriously. It is a reality that the AHRC knows from its own experience of lodging detailed prima facie complaints in numerous cases of torture, forced disappearance, extrajudicial killing and other gross abuses there over the last few years. None of those complaints has led to a satisfactory investigation and prosecution of the alleged perpetrators. Instead, they have been met with the same familiar excuses that are by now also well-known to Uthai: we checked with the police and they said that they did nothing wrong; the case is in the courts so we can do nothing; the case is not within our mandate; why didn’t you complain sooner or in another way? Even cases involving prominent persons, such as the abduction by the police of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, and the recent attempted abduction of National Human Rights Commissioner of Thailand Vasant Panich, fall on deaf ears or take many years of strenuous and constant effort to bear even the smallest fruits. 

In Thailand it has been known for some 30 years that there is a drastic need for reforms of the police. As far back as 1980 the parliamentary Administrative Committee recognised that “the police department is hated and despised by all people outside of it” for reason of its corrupt practices and rampant abuses. Nothing has been done since then to change this miserable situation. Repeated attempts at change have been blocked by the power of the police themselves. That power has been steadily entrenched and has reached a new level under the current administration, with police or former police occupying senior posts from prime minister down, in practically every part of government. 

Ultimately, the possibility of justice and human rights in any society depends upon there being the means through which genuine complaints of illegality and wrongdoing by state officers can be received, investigated and, where necessary, prosecuted. In some well-established jurisdictions, existing agencies are sufficiently robust and trusted by the population as to be able to do this work themselves. In other places, it is necessary to establish completely new and independent bodies to do this work: the Independent Commission against Corruption in Hong Kong is a good regional example. The 1997 Constitution of Thailand opened the door for the creation of many such bodies, but to date many have not performed as had been expected by the public. The Department of Special Investigation is a case in point: whereas many human rights defenders and organisations had hoped that it may be the starting point for objective investigations of police, with a police officer in charge it has only served to act as another layer of protection for alleged perpetrators in uniform. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission again asks the government of Thailand if it is in any way serious about its international obligations: or are laws signed and agreements made merely for the sake of public relations? Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obliges all parties to ensure that victims of violations have access to effective remedies through competent authorities. What effective remedies has Uthai Boonnom got? What competent authorities have responded to his complaints? No matter how many doors he has knocked on, how much he has raised his voice he has so far got nothing. In this, he has done much more than most people in Thailand, who are afraid to speak out or act in any way against the police, and with good reason: people’s lives are all too easily put in danger. And yet the risks that Uthai has taken have done him no good. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission again calls the attention of the government of Thailand to the recommendation of the UN Human Rights Committee in 2005 that it “actively pursue the idea of establishing an independent civilian body to investigate complaints filed against law enforcement officials”. In this, the AHRC would stress the word “actively”, and add, urgently. It also again urges the government to join the UN Convention against Torture and Other, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which would contribute significantly to the building of a regime to stop abuses in Thailand the likes of which were allegedly suffered by Uthai Boonnom and his partner, and the opening of doors through which effective complaints may safely be made against the police.