Anti-Torture Bill Not Quashed, Senior Justice Official Says

Protesters staged a rally at Chiang Mai City Hall in April 2014 urging a swift investigation into disappearance of Karen activist Porlachee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen.

BANGKOK — A senior Justice Ministry official said the regime remains committed to enacting legislation against torture and enforced disappearance despite belief the bill died recently in a subcommittee.

On Thursday, Pitikan Sithidej, a top official with the government’s human rights agency, tried to allay concerns raised two days earlier in Geneva by the United Nations, which expressed “disappointment” that Thailand had decided “not to enact a draft anti-torture and anti-disappearance law.”

Pitikan said Thursday that the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha remains committed to getting the bill adopted, and played down the delay, saying the draft bill was only returned to the ministry for tweaking.

Read: Thailand Moves to Ban Torture and Abduction. Activists Aren’t Ready to Celebrate.

“It’s the government’s commitment. It will go ahead,” said Pitikan, who refused to pin down when the bill was kicked back, what changes would be made, or when it would be ready. “Let’s not talk about the time frame. They sent it back for improvement. We’re discussing it. Passing legislation demands careful [consideration] and appropriateness.”

Torture and enforced disappearance are not criminalized, and the United Nations had been urging adoption of the bill for some time. On Tuesday, a UN statement decried news the bill had been put on ice.

“Despite the Government’s decision last May to enact the bill, we were informed last week that the National Legislative Assembly – the military-appointed parliament – has shelved the legislation which would have made enforced or involuntary disappearance and torture criminal offences,” read the statement from the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights.

Somchai Sawaengkarn, the assembly whip secretary in charge of the subcommittee vetting the bill, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But an agenda he signed off on showed his subcommittee would meet March 10 to discuss the matter.

He told BBC Thai on Wednesday that the draft bill was sent back for revision because it had yet to take into consideration all views, particularly of the Interior Ministry, police, soldiers, the attorney general and security agencies.

Human Rights lawyer Somchai Homlaor suggested Thursday that some elements within the security forces may be lobbying the National Legislative Assembly, or NLA, to stall the bill, if not abort it entirely.

“This matter is highly abnormal. There’s no information, no transparency. The NLA is not being transparent, and I think someone is lobbying them,” said the rights lawyer, whose contributions to a report on torture in the Deep South invited a libel suit from the military.

He described the legislative process as irregular and suspicious, and called for transparency from the NLA.

Somchai Homlaor said the law is aimed at scrutinizing and preventing torture and enforced disappearance by state agents.

The latest draft makes it a crime punishable by life imprisonment. Asked why someone would lobby against such a law, Somchai Homlaor said there must be people who fear prosecution.

“Security officers often resort to such measures, and not just in the Deep South,” the lawyer said.

The UN rights body noted in its statement that for too long, there has been no accountability in cases of torture and involuntary and enforced disappearance due to the lack of a legislative framework.

“As a result, perpetrators of such heinous crimes still cannot be prosecuted,” it said.

Since 1980, there have been 82 recorded cases of such disappearances in Thailand, the UN noted. Famous cases have included Muslim rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit in 2004 and Karen human rights activist Pholachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen in 2014.

“The Department of Special Investigation recently suspended an inquiry into Somchai Neelapaijit’s disappearance due to the lack of a codified law on the crime,” the statement said. “We are also concerned about the increasing number of criminal cases brought against human rights defenders in Thailand for reporting allegations of torture and ill-treatment.”

Amnesty International Thailand director Piyanut Kotsan said Thursday that it’s “extremely disappointed” by the latest turn of events, as delaying the law delayed justice for the victims and their families.

“The existing draft is the result of many years of hard work by both government officials and civil society,” she said. “We hope that the government will set a clear timeline for closing existing gaps in the law and ensuring that it meets Thailand’s obligations to uphold human rights standards.”

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UN Urges Thailand to Make ‘Forced Disappearance’ a Crime