Thailand: Murder of Mr. Thongnak Sawekchinda & the situation of human rights defenders in Thailand

Re: Murder of Mr. Thongnak Sawekchinda & the situation of human rights defenders in Thailand

To: Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister

From: Gail Davidson, Executive Director, LRWC

Date: 2011-08-24

We have become aware of the murder of Mr. Thongnak Sawekchinda, an environmental activist in Samut Sakhon province on 28 July 2011. While several suspects have been arrested or have turned themselves in, Thailand’s record of inadequate investigation, political influence, and poor protection of witnesses creates a climate of concern about any investigation of a killing of an environmental activist and human rights defender, particularly where there are allegations of murder for hire at the behest of persons of influence, as in this case. LRWC urges that your government insist on a thorough and impartial investigation of this murder to ensure that all those ultimately responsible for the murder will be held accountable in accordance with international human rights law binding on Thailand.

LRWC considers this serious crime to be part of a pattern of impunity with regard to attacks on and killings of human rights defenders (including environmental and community activists). This pattern is associated with an increase in reported collusion between private business interests (through “influential figures”) and government officials (such as police) in attacks or threats against human rights defenders, particularly those involved in community activism to resist land grabbing, deforestation or environmental destruction associated with land or industrial development.

At least 20 human rights defenders have been killed since 2001, 18 of whom were reportedly murdered between 2001 and 2005. Few people have been held to account for these serious human rights violations. In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee noted the targeting of “human rights defenders, community leaders, demonstrators and other members of civil society” and the failure of investigations leading to prosecutions and sentences “commensurate with the gravity of the crimes committed.”

The violent conflict in the South of Thailand is another arena for severe human rights abuses by police and military personnel. The enforced disappearance of Mr. Somchai Neelapaijit, a lawyer, on 12 March 2004, illustrates the seriousness of the problem of impunity for such offences in Thailand. As of January 11, the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances had 54 unresolved cases of enforced disappearance of persons in Thailand. Between 2002 and 2006, 23 cases of enforced disappearance were acknowledged by the government. As the International Commission of Jurists pointed out, “[i]n the trial of first instance, four police officers were acquitted of the minor crime of coercion (section 309 of the Thai Penal Code) and one was convicted and given the maximum sentence of 3 years. Almost seven years later, on 11 March 2011, the Court of Appeal overturned the lone conviction.” The police officers were not charged with murder because Mr. Somchai’s remains have never been found.

LRWC is also concerned that human rights defenders are unable to work freely in Thailand. Increasingly in the past several years, media freedom has been significantly and noticeably curtailed. Government interference with the media has expanded considerably, and there has been considerable illegal blocking of websites. There is continued application of Lèse majesté laws in ways that curtail legitimate expression of dissident opinions in violation of international human rights norms for freedom of expression. The Computer Crimes Act is also being used to persecute human rights defenders. For example, Ms. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a human rights activist, and Director of the prominent online news web-based news forum, Prachatai, has been charged under the Computer Crimes Act for not quickly enough preventing website users from posting contents deemed to be threatening to the country’s security. If convicted Ms. Premchaiporn could face a lengthy prison sentence.

LRWC also remains concerned that while Thailand’s laws regarding corruption are considered strong, enforcement remains weak. Police forces in Thailand are notoriously corrupt as is the logging industry which has been implicated in abuses of environmental human rights defenders. This fosters a climate of impunity for police and other government officials responsible for ensuring the rule of law and protection of human rights in Thailand.

Unfortunately, some aspects of Thailand’s judicial system are also viewed as weak. Criticisms include the very slow pace of proceedings because of drawn-out procedures that tend to attract influence on, or bribery of, public officials responsible for overseeing the pace of court processes. Thailand’s Anti-Corruption Strategy 2010 of the National Anti-Corruption Commission confirms views that the judicial system is weak and subject to “ingrained” practices of corruption and manipulation by so called “persons of influence” including politicians and organized crime actors.

We draw your attention to the UN General Assembly Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Article 12 articulates the responsibility of States to ensure “the protection of human rights defenders from threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights” to conduct their human rights work.

Therefore, we urge your government to ensure the protection of human rights defenders pursuant by taking the following steps to bring Thailand into adherence with international human rights law.

  • Publicly instruct all military, police and government agencies to cooperate fully and promptly with all official inquiries about human rights abuses;
  • Ensure freedom of expression of the media, including the internet, in accordance with international human rights standards, reviewing defamation, lese majeste and other laws and decrees affecting freedom of expression, and either repealing them or bringing them into line with international human rights standards as recommended in the recently adopted General Comment 34 of the UN Human Rights Committee, July 2011. LRWC points out that, according to the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 34, “all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”
  • Ensure full independence of the judiciary and sufficient funding for all courts, the National Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman in accordance with the UN Paris Principles, as well as the National Counter-Corruption Commission.
  • Firmly address persistent concerns about police corruption and impunity by enforcing anti-corruption laws and ensuring independent and impartial investigation of misconduct and reports of human rights abuses committed by police or military personnel.
  • Ratify the Convention for Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance in accordance with the statements in Thailand’s National report dated 19 July 2011 and submitted to the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and enact legislation to make enforced disappearance a criminal offence.
  • Accept the requests to visit Thailand of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
  • Ensure adequate ongoing international human rights education and training for all state officials, civil servants, judges, law enforcement officials and military personnel, as well as promote adequate training in human rights for teachers, trainers and other educators and private personnel acting on behalf of the State, pursuant to the Draft Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on 17 March 2011 and soon to be put forward for adoption by the General Assembly.