Jailed activists put justice system to test
A request for bail for pro-democracy protesters languishing in jail was rejected for the ninth time on Thursday.
Oddly, the decision by an Appeal Court judge was delivered after hours in one terse sentence as a throng of angry young protesters gathered on the steps of the court house.
The decision was not unexpected, however. The lawyer in the case simply went through the motions without any hope of assuaging the grief-stricken mother whose son was on the 46th day of a hunger strike.
Following their arrest early this year, Parit Chiwarak, or Penguin, together with three other activists were denied bail and ordered detained on Feb 9 pending trial.
Subsequent attempts to post bail were all in vain even though the protesters' lawyers argued their clients posed no flight risk and must be considered innocent according to the law and deserved to be freed to prepare their legal defence.
On March 15, Penguin announced a hunger strike to accompany a demand that all political prisoners be granted bail. Prior to this, his lawyers had complained to no avail that a prison official was posted in the room where they held conferences with their clients in breach of lawyer-client privacy.
Penguin's extreme action does not appear to have swayed the court as bail requests, one after another, were rejected. Instead, it caused pain and grief to his supporters and especially to his mother, Sureerat.
To demand justice for the political prisoners, the mothers of six jailed protesters have organised a demonstration in front of the Bangkok prison.
Starting Saturday April 17, they carried their sons' and daughter's photos and stood in silence for 112 minutes. They are determined to carry out the protest every Saturday. Many sympathisers have joined them in increasing numbers.
A number of legal experts have watched the cases with dismay. The infringement of the jailed activists' rights and the court's multiple bail denials trouble them.
Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a law professor and a vice rector of Thammasat University, argues that denying bail for cases still pending trial should be the exception, not the norm.
According to the constitution and Article 107 of the Criminal Code, an accused must be assumed innocent during a trial and granted bail unless conditions exist as stipulated by Article 108/1.
Said conditions include: (1) if the accused poses a flight risk; (2) if the accused could interfere with witnesses or evidence; (3) if the accused poses harmful threats; (4) if bail guarantors or bonds are not trustworthy; and (5) if temporary release poses obstacles or harm to ongoing official investigations.
Other reasons often cited to deny bail, such as the charges in question incurring severe penalties, the accused's conduct is serious, or the accused could repeat the offences, if released, do not fall within the parameters of the law.
Those are legal arguments that may be interpreted differently by other legal professionals and judges. For common folk, a number of practices used by the authorities against the jailed protesters are disturbing.
Reports from their lawyers quite clearly indicate discriminatory practices. Posting a prison official in the room where the lawyer and his client discuss their case is evidently beyond the pale.
On the day that veteran politician Suthep Thaugsuban and several others were found guilty of staging unlawful demonstrations against the Pheu Thai government and were briefly sent to jail, their friends and supporters were allowed to visit them.
But the same right was denied Penguin's and other jailed protesters' mothers and friends.
Breaches of lawyer-client privilege even took place within the court room as officials insisted on inspecting documents passed between the lawyers and their clients.
One of the most troubling developments of the case is the barring of all persons, including the mothers and close relatives, except the lawyers and their clients from the court room in recent hearings. While visitors were allowed to watch live video feeds in another room, technical glitches, whether intentional or not, left much to be desired.
The legal shambles escalated when on March 30 Panusaya "Rung" Sitthijirawattakul -- the only female dissident currently in jail -- joined the hunger strike and a week later most of the jailed protesters refused to recognise their lawyers -- essentially dismissing them -- in protest at the justice system's perceived unfair treatment toward them.
It is an act of defiance but at the same time of desperation in having to face a justice system that they feel is weighed against them in an unjust way.
While the jailed dissidents' protest actions against the legal process may seem extreme at times, any fair-minded person would suspect that they are under the oppressive weight of an unfair system bent on breaking their spirits and subjugating them.
Unfortunately, the judicial system, inadvertently or not, has been brought into the political drama and has become a key actor in the escalating conflict. Its carefully cultivated image of impartiality is being severely tested.
But if the established authorities intend to make an example of the jailed dissidents to deter rising popular opposition, they are likely to be disappointed.
Myanmar is a stark example: More oppression does not bring peace or acceptance of authorities -- rather the opposite.
Another way to peace must be found and it could begin by recalibrating the justice system to make it not only appear to be just but actually to truly dispense justice to all.
Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.