Ampon's death sparks outcry

Ampon's death sparks outcry

The death of high-profile lese majeste convict Uncle SMS while in a prison hospital has sparked outcry from local and international human rights organisations over poor medical services for prisoners.

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its Thai member organisation, Union for Civil Liberties (UCL), expressed their condolence on the death of Ampon Tangnoppakhun, who was convicted on Nov 23 and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for sending four text messages deemed offensive to the Queen of Thailand to a personal assistant of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2010 in violation of Article 112 of the Criminal Code and the Computer-related Crimes Act of 2007.

The conditions at Thai detention centres, their statement said, fall far short of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the medical services provided are often primitive. The premature death of a prisoner in fragile health must be independently and credibly investigated, and the findings of the autopsy that has reportedly been performed should be published promptly. 

Prison was a very inappropriate environment for the detention of an aged prisoner in poor health, said the FIDH and UCL. The case of Ampon is one of hundreds of lèse majesté cases that have been sent for prosecution at the Court of First Instance in recent years. 

The number of such cases to go to the Court of First Instance has increased alarmingly since the military coup in 2006; 30 charges were sent for prosecution in 2006, but that number skyrocketed to 478 in 2010, according to government statistics.

The FIDH and UCL considered Article 112, commonly known as the lèse majesté law, as well as related provisions of the Computer-related Crimes Act, as inconsistent with Thailand's Constitution and obligations under international human rights treaties which it has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires states to protect freedom of expression.

The NGOs said the formulation, scope and application of the law have resulted in restrictions on freedom of expression and opinion in conflict with the constitutional rights of the Thai people. 

The Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand stated in its latest report that keeping the lèse majesté law in its current form was an obstruction to reconciliation and repeated its recommendation to the government to amend it, the statement said. "Ignoring the need to stem the abuse of the lèse majesté law will only aggravate a sense of injustice already pervasive across the country,” said Danthong Breen, chairman of UCL. 

"As a member of the Human Rights Council, it is unacceptable that Thailand allows its law to criminalise free speech with little regard to the rule of law and democracy," Mr Danthong said.

"The death of Mr Tangnoppakhun is a reminder to the Thai authorities of the tragic and inhumane impact of the application of the lèse majesté law, including the systematic denial of bail," FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen said. 

"The Thai government should heed the growing calls of the Thai people as well as the international community to amend the law to bring it into line with international human rights law or repeal it," said Mr Belhassen.

The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission also called on the Thai government to ensure that Ampon's autopsy and post-mortem inquest are in line with the Criminal Procedure Code and carried out fully and transparently. Preliminary information in this case, the AHRC said, indicated that Amphon entered the prison hospital on Friday, but that the unavailability of laboratory services meant he could not be treated over the weekend. 

"We also call for the government to provide much more open and complete accounting of the prison healthcare system in Thailand than what is currently available publicly, and to do so with reference to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners," the statement said. Section 22(2) of the UN rules stated that "Sick prisoners who require specialist treatment shall be transferred to specialised institutions or to civilian hospitals. 

Where hospital facilities are provided in an institution, their equipment, furnishings and pharmaceutical supplies shall be proper for the medical care and treatment of sick prisoners, and there shall be a staff of suitable trained officers. "Section 25(2) also states that "the medical officer shall report to the director whenever he considers that a prisoner's physical or mental health has been or will be injuriously affected by continued imprisonment or by any condition of imprisonment."

The AHRC repeated its previous calls that the government of Thailand repeal section 112 of the Criminal Code -- which provides penalties of three to 15 years for any alleged insult, defamation or threat against the King, Queen, heir-apparent and regent; and thereby demands unquestioned allegiance to the monarchy in Thailand -- and release all remaining individuals facing charges or convicted of violating the section, and related provisions of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act.

"In the years since the coup on Sept 19, 2006, many people have paid a high price for alleged disloyalty to the monarchy, with sentences whose length is comparable to those for persons convicted of drug trafficking and murder. The death in custody of Amphon Tangnoppakul indicates that the price of loyalty is too high: a man has paid for four SMS messages with his life, and his family has paid with the loss of their husband, father and grandfather," said the statement.

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