The army group in charge of security in the deep South is taking a dangerous and misguided step in trying to punish critics in court. The Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) has filed double-edged criminal suits against the heads of three NGOs for publishing a booklet last February, starkly called Torture, and clearly detailing 54 credible cases of alleged army mistreatment of detainees in the South. Isoc denies there was any torture, at any time, and claims it has been damaged by the printed cases.
There is a good chance Isoc will lose the case, which is not the only reason it should withdraw the charges. In filing the case, Isoc is following in the footsteps of the Royal Thai Navy. The Phuket headquarters of the navy charged and tried to imprison the editor and a journalist of the online newspaper Phuketwan. Like Isoc, the navy claimed it was harmed by defamatory reports. It pressed the lawsuits despite massive advice from all quarters to drop them. In the end, it lost the case so badly that the public prosecutor actually refused to show up for the last court sessions, when the navy's hopeless case was obvious.
No two cases are exactly the same, and Isoc would reject any comparison with the navy losers. Indeed, there are important differences. The navy took on a foreign newsman and his Thai reporter, while Isoc is facing three of the most formidable human and civil rights experts in the country. Phuketwan was a small, under-funded online operation. Isoc faces high-profile opponents who will not have to scrounge for legal funds or representation.
The extremely modest but important documentation of alleged torture and mistreatment on Isoc's watch came from research by the three NGOs. It was issued under three names. Somchai Homlaor is one of the best-known Thai human rights defenders in the country's history, and -- among a dozen eminent groups -- a former president of the Union for Civil Liberty. Pornpen Khongkachonkiet is also a lawyer and a prominent human rights campaigner. Anchana Heemmina, a native of the South, works to help victims of torture, and to provide support for their families. A total of 66 local and international human rights groups have pledged allegiance to the three, demanding that the army withdraw the lawsuits.
As Isoc's goal, as outlined last week by spokesman Col Pramote Prom-in, is to jail these three people on charges of libel and defamation, it has plumbed the legal depths to launch a second charge of misuse of the internet. The Computer Crime Act, abused in so many recent prosecutions, could add five years or more to the prison time -- if Isoc manages to prevail.
Once again, a powerful group is trying to force its will upon critics. The Isoc suit is particularly abusive because it carries the implication that its authority comes from the military regime. But Isoc is also taking a page from the navy lawsuit by denying everything that was in the booklet on torture. "You can't say they were tortured", claimed Col Pramote.
Even if Isoc wins this case, it will still lose. The group appears to be a bully, attempting to intimidate critics and halt fair, free speech. By doing so, Isoc is misusing its power and the court system. The only way to save the group from further damages is to drop this lawsuits and instead launch a probe into the alleged torture cases.