For Immediate Release: October 28, 2007
NEW YORK— Human Rights First urged the Thai government to ensure that more than 300 Malay Muslims from southern Thailand detained in army “vocational training” camps are either charged under the criminal code based on reliable evidence or released without restrictions on their ability to return home. The group also called on the government to protect detainees, their lawyers, and family members from retribution.
On October 30, judges will issue decisions in three landmark habeas corpus hearings that will determine the legality of the detention. Such hearings are rare in Thailand and could help address the violence in the south in a way that respects the rule of law and Thailand’s constitutional and international obligations. At the same time, they address only one part of a broader problem of lengthy detention without charge.
“Whatever the judges decide in these cases, the government should abandon the dubious practice of mass detentions of suspected insurgents without charge,” said Maureen Byrnes, executive director of Human Rights First. “Thai authorities should either charge detainees under the criminal code using solid evidence or release them from custody.”
The cases involve the government’s detention of hundreds of new suspects from the conflict-ridden southern provinces, beginning last June, under suspicion of supporting insurgents. Most were held without charge, first under martial law for seven days and then under an emergency decree for an additional 30 days.
When they reached the 37-day limit of detention without charge, instead of being charged or released, more than 300 hundred of the detainees were transferred to three “vocational training” camps on distant military bases. The army claims the training is voluntary, but detainees told the court they were threatened with lengthy prison terms and were not given information about the charges they faced or access to a lawyer.
On October 3, some of the detainees requested in writing to return home but were denied. Relatives of nearly 100 participants then requested habeas corpus hearings, and provincial courts in Ranong, Surat Thani, and Chumphon provinces heard testimony as to whether the men were in fact being detained against their will, and if there was a legal basis to hold them. Human Rights First observed one of the hearings.
There have been reports that provincial authorities visited relatives of the detainees to convince them to drop their complaints. Four complaints were withdrawn at a hearing in Ranong on October 18th. On October 26th, a senior military official reportedly pressured detainees in three camps to withdraw their petition just before the decision.
“To appeal against detention is to challenge the military’s authority, and those who brought these complaints may face retribution,” said Byrnes. “All lawyers, detainees, and their relatives must be free from intimidation for exercising their basic legal rights.”
There are also concerns that the government will continue some form of detention or restriction on movement, whatever the outcome of the hearings. For example, on October 18th, it was reported that some of the men would be sent to work overseas. While some might want such opportunities, they must be allowed to decide outside the coercive atmosphere of an army camp.
Also of concern is a pending Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) bill [see press release at http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/media/hrd/2007/alert/347/]. The most recent version would empower the ISOC director to send suspects to six-month “training programs” that they “voluntarily” choose rather than face criminal charges. If passed, this provision could be used to hold the detainees if the courts rule that there is currently no legal basis for detention. Such a bill should be considered only after public debate and the participation of a democratically elected legislature; elections are scheduled for December 23.
Thailand’s southern provinces, which have a large ethnic Malay Muslim population, have for decades been home to a complex web of armed groups, some of them advocating independence from Thailand. The latest cycle of violence began in January 2004 and has been fueled by longstanding grievances and recent human rights abuses, as well as by acts of violence by militants including bombings and assassinations.
An emergency decree has been in effect in the three southern provinces since July 2005, and martial law has been in effect in parts of the country since a September 2006 coup. In addition, a military order dated July 22 named 384 people prohibited from residing in the southern provinces for six months. Among those listed were the detainees sent to the “vocational training” camps to the north.