ISOC Drops Defamation Suit Over Torture Report, Raising New Concerns

Embarking on a campaign of pacification under the government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the first wave of soldiers arrive in Pattani in this May 2004 file photo.

BANGKOK — A criminal defamation case brought by the military against three human rights defenders will be dropped, a spokesman for the government counterinsurgency agency said Tuesday.

Col. Pramote Promin, a spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command, or ISOC, said it would end legal action today against three people over a 2016 report recounting former detainees’ allegations of torture at the hands of security forces in the Deep South.

“We have no intention of winning the [legal] cases to have the three NGO activists face punishment,” said Pramote, adding that human rights activists must work closely with the ISOC from now on.

Veteran human rights lawyer Somchai Homlaor, the most senior of the three activists, turned to his fellow defendants and then thanked the ISOC, the military and the military government leaders in front of the media at a hotel in Bangkok.

When the report was issued early last year – a text including the accounts of 54 alleged torture victims who claimed they had been subjected to electric shocks, sleep deprivation, strip searches and induced hypoxia – the army was severely vexed and sued the authors in May.

Trying to put over half a year of acrimonious accusations and counter-accusation behind, Pramote spelled out three points of collaboration.

Both parties agreed to three conditions. The first demanded the examination of future torture reports by both NGOs and state representatives before their release. The second condition called for the formation of an independent committee to investigate claims of torture. Thirdly, the parties agreed to set up a joint working mechanism to enact the first two conditions.

“We very much welcome the development,” said Kingley Abbot, Senior International Legal Advisor at the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists. Abbot said he believes no charges should have been made to begin with. The advisor then expressed a caveat, saying he wanted to wait and see “what [new] framework looks like” and to “monitor to see the spirit of collaboration.”

When asked it if meant international rights organizations like the International Court of Justice would have to monitor the issue to ensure that local human rights defenders are not co-opted by the military, he said yes.

Abbot’s views were shared by Pornpen Khongkachnkiet, director of Cross Cultural Foundation – one of the three sued by the ISOC – who asked a reporter if the joint-press conference led to some doubt that rights defenders may have compromised themselves.

The reality is that the report is already in the public domain and that there’s nothing the ISOC or rights defenders can do about it. Somchai explicitly stated during the brief press conference that he and his two co-authors – who include Pornpen and Muslim activist Anchana Heemmina – have no intention to see the report cited “for political benefits.”

Asked about what would be of those involved in the report’s torture allegations, Somchai said officers would be prosecuted if found guilty.

It’s unclear how the two sides will work together to produce possible alleged torture report, particularly if there’s a disagreement between the two sides. Somchai later posted on Facebook saying that their side has the right to unilaterally examine torture complaints.

“After initial examination, we will appeal to government agencies to examine it. In some cases, the examination may be done by a working-group composed of different sectors as done in the past…”

Pornpen meanwhile insisted that the withdrawal of charges had nothing to do with the three-point agreement.

“We did not agree on what they proposed,” Pornpen said through private message to Khaosod English five hours after the press conference. “We can report without having [ISOC] check it but we will include ISOC views in [future] reports.”

Prior to today’s press conference, the three activists faced charges of criminal defamation and of violation of the Computer Crimes Act. They could have faced a maximum imprisonment term of seven years each.

The case attracted wide-attention from the international community, particularly democratic countries from the West who expressed support for the activists.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Anchana serves as chairwoman of Amnesty International Thailand. In fact that is Pornpen.

Related stories:

2016 Another Year of Restricted Rights in Thailand: Amnesty International

Human Rights Activists Refuse to Hand Over Names of Alleged Torture Victims

Torture in Deep South Systematic and Spreading Elsewhere, Rights Groups Allege