Dangerous militarisation of Thai justice

More than two years since the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) staged a coup, the military regime continues to justify its grip on power by running the systematic militarisation of law and the judicial process against its critics, political dissidents and ordinary citizens, according to a recent report by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. In doing so, the military has created its own versions of law and manipulated the entire justice process, depriving civilians of their rights to fair trial and violating their rights to freedoms of expression.

The report, entitled "The Disguised Militarisation in the Name of Law and the Judicial Process", written by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, depicts a grim picture of Thailand's justice system since the military took power in May 2014. The group, which was formed shortly after the coup, has assisted political dissidents and those facing charges imposed by the NCPO. So far, it has handled at least 86 cases for 199 defendants.

In light of their findings, the group has called for the regime to revoke the use of military courts for civilian cases and end the use of Section 44 of the interim charter which legitimises any orders of the NCPO leader as "lawful, constitutional and final". They also called for a return to full democracy.

The report was launched just a few days before the arrest of pro-democracy activists and students, including members of the Seri Kasetsart Group, last Friday. The activists gathered in Bangkok to mark the June 24, 1932 revolution when the country changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one.

From the 2014 coup until April 30, 2016, the report found that the NCPO had summoned at least 1,006 individuals for "attitude adjustment" in a military compound, intervened or blocked at least 130 planned public activities including seminars, and arrested at least 579 people under the rules of martial law and the NCPO's 198 orders (as of June 19, 2016).

The militarisation disguised in the name of numerous orders and the interim constitution imposed by the junta have adjusted and distorted the principles of the legal state Thailand once belonged to.

The NCPO has used the militarised law and orders to justify its actions and re-create a public image of Thailand as a legal state.

The report highlights the fact that the NCPO has taken control of Thailand's legislation, administration and judiciary arms (by transferring certain cases to military court), centralising them into the military's absolute sovereign power and waiving the need for its accountability. As a result, the military government has since stripped away freedoms and basic rights guaranteed for the people under the previous constitution.

Summonses and state surveillance

In the aftermath of the coup, the military, police and other security units have imposed strict state surveillance to monitor movements and expressions of opinion by civilians in all topical and geographic areas. Summonses, detentions, house visits and obstruction of planned social and political movements have become the new normal for the country.

In the first few months after the coup, the NCPO issued 37 orders to summon 472 people. However, a lot more people have been summoned since, sometimes without the issuance of any additional orders. Those subject to attitude adjustment include politicians, political activities in the anti-coup red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) camp, social activists, human rights activists, lawyers, academics, members of the media and non-governmental organisations' representatives.

Detention in a military compound for up to seven days is a new rule authorised under martial law during the first 10 months after the putsch. By putting in place the draconian Section 44, the practice has however been prolonged and become more widespread. Detainees, many of whom were not charged with any particular offences, were forced to sign a memo of understanding, barring them from political movements and overseas travel. The army has kept an eye on those who were released.

The detentions took place mostly in a secretive military compound where detainees had no access to lawyers. Contact with relatives was prohibited. These detentions violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a multilateral treaty of the United Nations ratified by Thailand. The practice risked exposing detainees to torture by authorities. The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group received at least 18 complaints of torture against detainees during the military detentions. Thus far, official probes have made no progress in investigating alleged torture cases.

Militarised judicial process

The junta has taken control of the entire judicial process in a systematic way, imposing criminal charges against anti-coup activists and critics of the military government. The military's powers, disguised in the form of laws and court procedures, have been used as the tools to threaten opponents.

First, the coup-makers have engineered their own laws, issuing and implementing numerous NCPO orders which criminalise previously lawful acts such as banning political gatherings of five people or more. A few days after the coup, the NCPO created a new rule requiring four types of offences to be tried under the military court: lese majeste, national security, weapons possession and violations of NCPO orders. As of Sept 30, 2015, there were 1,629 civilians tried in 1,408 cases in military courts nationwide.

Martial law and those orders have granted sweeping powers to military officers to search, arrest and hold suspects of national security threats in custody for a period of up to seven days without court warrants. The NCPO took another step to broaden the power of soldiers, allowing them to be in charge of justice procedures required for 27 additional types of offence including human trafficking, narcotics and forest encroachment. As a result, alleged offenders were brought to the military-led justice process.

Under the circumstances, the defendants didn't receive the right to a fair trial as internationally guaranteed by the ICCPR because their cases were handled by military courts which, due to affiliation with the Defence Ministry, may be questioned for lack of independence and neutrality. Worse still, those who were charged with offences during the imposition of martial law, from May 22, 2014 to April 1, 2015, cannot appeal their cases. The cases under military court procedures meanwhile are usually bogged down with delays.

The military also set up an interim military prison, located in a military compound, which makes it possible for the military to prolong detentions over seven days. In the prison, soldiers are appointed as "special prison guards". The practice violates the ICCPR's principles governing the administration of justice through military tribunals which prohibit detention of civilians in a military compound.

Exploitation of existing laws

To suppress political dissidents, the NCPO has broadened the interpretation of existing laws and imposed harsher penalties on alleged offenders who were forced to be tried under military courts.

The military has intensified the use of Section 112 of the Criminal Code, known as the lese majeste law, to suppress freedom of expression. Since the 2014 coup, there have been 18 lese majeste cases tried in military courts with nine cases reaching a final verdict. No defendant was granted bail. Most of them confessed to the crime.

Military court judges usually hand harsher verdicts compared to similar cases under the courts of justice. For example, the Bangkok Military Court sentenced Pongsak Sriboonpeng to 60 years in prison for six alleged lese majeste Facebook posts (later reduced to 30 years when he pleaded guilty). The regime has also increased the use of Section 116 of the Criminal Code, known as the sedition law, to silence critics, broadening its interpretation of the law to ban peaceful political activities. Until now, 39 individuals have been charged with sedition including Pansak Srithep, a 48-year-old man who staged a "walk of justice". The lawyers' group has discovered that the military has used this article to widen its net to arrest more people even though they didn't do anything to "stir unrest".

Those who simply wanted to hold public events or seminars also ran into difficulty. The regime has blocked at least 130 planned activities and charged at least 85 people for violating its orders.

Impunity

The interim charter, imposed by the NCPO, has allowed soldiers to use the entire militarised judicial process with impunity. It also closes all doors for checks-and-balance mechanisms against the use of powers by the military. It legitimises all actions carried out as part of Sections 44 and 47, making it impossible for anyone to challenge the NCPO's implementation of laws and orders.

The worst part of the interim charter is Section 48 which absolutely releases all actions by the NCPO from guilt and liability.


This article is an abridged version of a report, 'The Disguised Militarisation in the Name of Law and the Judicial Process', by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

About the author

Writer: Thai Lawyers for Human Rights