Let there be light in judicial darkness
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Let there be light in judicial darkness

The presentation of the suspected “men in black” last week raises more questions about justice in Thailand under the military regime than it answers. The four men were dressed in black with red armbands and balaclavas, and were seated in front of news cameras while surrounded by police who appeared dressed and armed for combat. The lone female suspect, Punika Chusri, 39, was not subjected to the same treatment.

On Friday, the four men were led through a re-enactment of the violence of April 10, 2010, at Kok Wua intersection. They were photographed handling multiple weapons, including an M79 grenade launcher. The re-enactment was conducted under tight security, with reports of 350 police in attendance, and was clearly orchestrated to garner publicity rather than evidence. Again, Ms Punika was not required to participate.

The questions raised by this series of events are myriad and troubling, not the least of which is why male and female suspects were treated so differently. The use of re-enactments is troubling and would be considered highly prejudicial in a legal system that relied on juries.

The arrest of Kittisak Soomsri in particular warrants scrutiny. Mr Kittisak was arrested by soldiers wearing plain clothes on the evening of Sept 5 and his whereabouts were unknown for almost a week. Human Rights Watch issued a statement, with Asia director Brad Adams saying his “enforced disappearance shows the Thai military’s wanton disregard for basic rights under martial law”.

Mr Kittisak resurfaced dressed in black and is now accused of being among those who killed soldiers in 2010. But it is unclear exactly whose custody he was in during that time, or how long he was held by the military before being handed over to the police.

The others were said to have been arrested on Tuesday after evidence was presented to a court and arrest warrants were issued. They are said to have confessed. But what was that evidence? Who handled the interviews? How can we be certain the confessions were genuine?

For now, we only have the word of the police and the military — only one side of the story. Hearing from the prosecution alone is not enough. Even in cases where the accused plead guilty, judges do not rush to dole out punishment without hearing mitigating circumstances from the defence. In circumstances where there are legitimate grounds to be sceptical of the validity of confessions, the public needs greater evidence and greater assurance of the independence of the judicial system.

The suspects are still just that — suspects. They are all entitled to the presumption of innocence and a fair trial and they are entitled to be treated equally under the law. Justice has to be meted out even-handedly, and it has to be transparent. Too much about this case is currently unclear to be certain the suspects’ rights will be respected. As the case progresses there needs to be greater clarity.

It is a welcome move that a new team from the Department of Special Investigation has taken over the case; hopefully this will mean fresher and more independent sets of eyes looking over the evidence even before the case proceeds to court.

The timing of the arrests and the blaze of publicity on them was also curious, coinciding with the release of Amnesty International’s report “Attitude adjustment: 100 days under martial law”. Amnesty detailed how, since the coup, 665 people had been detained or ordered to report. The junta said the number is 471, and that 60 of them failed to show up. The 411 who did have all been released, the regime said.

Amnesty’s report says that 242 people had been detained, 78 had been arrested at peaceful protests and a total of 141 academics, writers, journalists and activists had been summonsed. Of the 86 people facing charges after the summons, 61 will have their cases go before military courts and 26 before civilian courts. If Amnesty’s figures are right, it means one person has the distinction of answering charges before both.

In its somewhat clumsily worded response to Amnesty International, the junta repeated the mantra that they are maintaining law and order and relied on the same statistically suspect opinion polls to argue most people were happy with the situation. It also criticised the report for failing to consider the root causes for martial law.

Of Amnesty’s many recommendations, one in particular is worth spelling out in full: “Ensure that civilians are tried before ordinary civilian courts in proceedings which fully meet international standards of fairness.”

This is important not only for the suspects, but for the victims. The families of those killed by the men in black in April 2010 deserve to know the right people have been brought to justice, and that can only happen in an open, transparent and accountable system. Justice needs to be seen working, otherwise it is not done at all.

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