BANGKOK — Pro-democracy campaigners on Monday said one of their peers was abducted and held incommunicado by security officers for hours over the weekend, an allegation denied by the government.
The Internal Security Operations Command, or ISOC, which answers directly to PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, said its agents were not involved in the alleged abduction of a 25-year-old activist. Human rights watchdogs also say recent tactics by the police that saw government critics detained without access to lawyers are equally alarming.
“ISOC is not related to the incident,” ISOC spokesman Thanathip Sawangsaeng said in a statement. “Our missions do not cover … protest sites. Based on our preliminary investigation, we affirm that no ISOC unit appeared to have been involved in the case.”
According to activists, a protest guard volunteer named Yale was taken from his home in Pathum Thani on Saturday night by individuals in an unmarked van, who reportedly claimed to be ISOC officers.
The alleged kidnapping took place after Yale joined a protest denouncing the royal defamation law at Victory Monument on Saturday afternoon. He was released 14 hours later, activists said.
Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan declined to comment on the alleged abduction when reporters queried him on Monday morning.
Tosathep Duangnate, a 24-year-old member of the We Volunteer protest guard unit, was also mistreated while under police custody, according to We Volunteer leader Piyarat Chongthep.
Tosathep, a computer technician by trade, was arrested at his home by plain clothes police officers on Friday evening, Piyarat said, adding that the police did not present any arrest warrant or allowed him to call his attorney.
Piyarat said the group later realized that one of their members was missing, and marched to Bangkaew Police Station in Samut Prakan – which has jurisdiction over Tosathep’s home – to demand answers on Sunday afternoon.
“We asked about his whereabouts and the police didn’t even tell us that they have him in custody,” Piyarat said. “It was only because we saw his name written on a board of those detained at the police station that we discovered he was there.”
He went on to accuse police of slapping Tosathep in his head and threatening his life during an interrogation. “The method was barbaric.”
Tosathep was taken to court on Monday and released on bail. Bangkaew Police Station superintendent Mongkol On-kaew said Tosathep was wanted on charges of destroying public property by spray painting political messages onto the base of a large portrait depicting Royal Family members on Jan. 10.
He denied the allegations that police treated Tosathep improperly.
“We definitely worked under the legal process. He was arrested at home and the parents were there. They could’ve come and looked for him. Yet the We Volunteer group is claiming that they couldn’t reach him,” Col. Mongkol said by phone.
Asked if Tosathep was indeed hit in the head by police during the interrogation as alleged by the group, Col. Mongkol replied, “I don’t think police would have done that.”
But Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, an attorney at Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, said there is a pattern in the way police arrested pro-democracy dissidents in the past week, which includes detaining the suspects at night, confiscating their cellphones, barring them from a visit from lawyers, and failing to inform their immediate family of their whereabouts.
“It’s no longer an isolated case at one or two police stations,” Poonsuk said.
She referred to an earlier case on Jan. 10, when police arrested a Thammasat University student at his apartment and held him incommunicado for hours.
The lawyer, whose group is representing the government critics pro bono, said these tactics are in clear violation of the law and urged national police chief Gen Suwat Changyodsuk to look into the matter.
Human Rights Watch coordinator Sunai Phasuk said police actions in recent days could amount to “state-enforced disappearance,” which is defined by many civil rights organizations as detaining someone without revealing their fate and whereabouts.
“Our main concern is that police conduct arrests with the same pattern which shows disregard to both Thai and international laws,” Sunai said. “It doesn’t matter if someone is missing and unaccounted for for 5 to 10 minutes, or two hours. This is a serious crime under international human rights law.”
Former National Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit, whose husband was abducted in 2004 and never seen again, said she was disturbed to see how police handled the arrests of pro-democracy activists recently.
Apart from infringing on their rights, police risk leaving the suspects with a long term trauma, she said.
“When these people were taken away in such fashion, they would likely become fearful,” Angkhana said. “They could end up experiencing psychological trauma in the future.”