Police coercion sparks law debate

Police coercion sparks law debate

Some MPs disagree on the need to lower the age at which juveniles can be punished

Panya Khongsaenkham is seen answering questions at the Sa Kaeo provincial police headquarters last week. (Screenshot)
Panya Khongsaenkham is seen answering questions at the Sa Kaeo provincial police headquarters last week. (Screenshot)

The investigation into the death of Buaphan Tansu, 47, in Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo province, which led to Panya Khongsaenkham, 54, her husband, being made a scapegoat by police, has sparked a public outcry.

The saga has prompted fresh calls for reform of the police's law enforcement role -- the beginning of the judicial process to ensure justice for all -- but also called into question the need to review the juvenile criminal law.

On the same day this month that Buaphan, known as "Pa Kob" or aunty Kob, was found in a pond in the border district of this eastern province, Mr Panya was detained for questioning and charged with murder, while the police claimed he confessed to the crime.

However, footage obtained from a security camera and aired by a TV channel revealed the real culprits were five youths were caught beating Buaphan repeatedly and taking her body away from the scene.

Buaphan: Body found in a pond

Aranyaprathet police had claimed Mr Panya killed his wife and disposed her body in the pond, but after the clip was aired police had to change tack. They detained the youths, who confessed to killing the woman and disposing of her body.

One of the five suspects were sons of policemen at the station. The officers were later transferred to make way for an investigation into the attempt to make Mr Panya a scapegoat in the case.

An audio clip also emerged in which Mr Panya was heard being tortured and forced to make a false confession. A probe by Provincial Police Region 2 singled out two officers, later identified by Mr Panya.

Police will pay the price

"I have to admit those police made a mistake," national police chief Pol Gen Torsak Sukvimol told the Bangkok Post. They could be punished under the National Police Act, along with their supervisors and station chief.

Review of juvenile law

As for the juvenile criminal law, he said, police are studying the possibility of having the law amended so that young people who commit serious crimes face tougher penalties.

Previous legal amendments concerning the juvenile criminal law in places such as China, Japan and Europe are being taken into account in this study, he said, adding the findings are expected by the end of this month. They will be submitted to Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.

"We're not intending to have more young criminal suspects arrested and prosecuted, but will focus more on how to deal better with misconduct committed by young people which is violent and shocking to the public," he said.

Another study is being conducted in parallel with that one to find out the rate of recidivism by juvenile delinquents after they are released from youth detention centres, he said. "We still cannot say what age should be the new maximum age to be considered as a youth under the law as we have to be prudent in handling this matter," he said.

Assoc Prof Krisanaphong Poothakool, chairman of Criminology and Justice Administration at Rangsit University, meanwhile, said police need to clear all doubts raised over the scapegoat case.

The police involved must be punished seriously, to both deter scapegoating and help restore public confidence, he said. He also supported calls for a review of the country's juvenile criminal law, saying Japan, for one, has already lowered the maximum age of youths exempt from criminal penalties from 16 to less than 14.

Japan's legal amendment followed the gruesome murder of three children by a 15-year-old, he said, adding the US has also taken into consideration the criminal habits of young offenders in a shooting spree when deciding whether a terrorist charge should apply in such cases as well. Parents of young offenders found guilty of terrorism in the US are also now held responsible for their child's misconduct, he said.

Discussions are also growing in Europe about whether young offenders committing serious crimes should face similarly tough punishment as their adult counterparts, he said.

"As society has changed dramatically, young people now have easy access to information and new knowledge, which allows them to casually learn in both a good and bad way," he said.

Krisanaphong: Learn from other countries

The law should also be amended to impose more legal responsibility on parents of a young offender, said Pol Gen Winai Thongsong, a member of the Police Commission.

Even though young people tend to mature early, their parents still can't deny the responsibility of raising them well. If they do, they should be prosecuted in connection with the crimes their children commit, he said.

Different point of view

Nutthawut Buaprathum, a list-MP of the Move Forward Party (MFP), by contrast, says he believes Thailand's juvenile criminal law is fine at the moment and doesn't require any change.

Two years ago, the law was amended to incorporate a new group of young offenders into three age brackets, namely less than 12, 12 to 15 and 15 to 18, he said.

Instead of pushing to lower the maximum age of youths under the law, the MP said he would rather encourage more preventive measures which he believed would be more effective in bringing down the juvenile crime rate.

Children's absence from school, for instance, should be promptly detected as a warning sign which needs to be dealt with before it evolves into a more serious problem, he said.

In terms of protection of children's rights, many other countries have concluded that having more young offenders prosecuted isn't an ideal solution for tackling juvenile crimes, Mr Nutthawut said.

Nutthawut: Juvenile law 'perfectly fine'

Stopping police misconduct

Forcing a criminal suspect to confess to a crime is something of the past which should never happen again, said Pol Gen Winai, adding police should focus on finding evidence solid enough to make a suspect admit on his own to the crime he is accused of committing.

The truth is that despite a confession being secured during the police investigation, a suspect could still retract his confession in court if investigators didn't have sufficient evidence to back it up, he said.

In the Aranyaprathet scapegoat case, he said, the police involved will likely face both disciplinary action and criminal punishment, as well as penalties for breaking the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act 2022.

Winai: Authorities must gather solid evidence

New law vs police reform

If the anti-torture law had been followed at the Aranyaprathet station, this case would have not occurred, said Angkhana Neelaphaijit, a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

Under the law, Aranyaprathet police were supposed to wear a body camera and record Mr Panya's interrogation, she said.

The law says administrative authorities, prosecutors, police and Department of Special Investigation officials are authorised to examine a complaint regarding improper treatment of a suspect. "We will wait and see how this case is decided, now we have a new law which is designed to better protect criminal suspects' safety and rights," she said.

Angkhana: Notes flaws in police interrogation

The police force has undergone several rounds of reform, which has improved checks and balances in the country's law enforcement system, said Mr Nutthawut. In his opinion, the law enforcement system could be further improved in three ways: by adopting more advances in forensic science technology, adding more public lawyers at the provincial level for the sake of better protection of criminal suspects' rights, and supporting the role of the media in checking and balancing the authority of police.

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