A wasted opportunity to address impunity

[SEAPA Impunity Report 2013]

The flare up of political unrest still currently smoldering in Thailand could have been an opportune moment for the country to learn that impunity is unacceptable – whether committed by state or non-state actors for any political motivation.

Large protests were triggered after the ruling party’s 31 October passage of a blanket amnesty bill aimed at absolving crimes committed by political actors since 2004.

As it turned out, the main reason that sent dormant anti-government activists back to the streets in droves is the sinister attempt to pardon former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s conviction on corruption charges, which could have paved the way for his return from self-exile.

The focus of the rallies on Thaksin’s corruption is understandable for it was also one of the main reasons that led to his ouster from power in the 2006 military coup d’état. The huge turnout demonstrated continuing political passions against the former prime minister, despite consistent election victories of pro-Thaksin parties since the coup.-

Purely political

The anti-amnesty protests however obscured the issue of impunity for human rights violations and perpetrators of violence in the ongoing political divide, including violence during military crackdowns against the 2010 redshirt protests, and restrictions on freedom of expression, particularly online.

These issues have been largely ignored in the unprecedentedly cross-partisan critique against the amnesty bill. The largest group of political rallies, however, was spearheaded by opposition leaders Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban.

These two leaders of the Democrat Party were indicted by the Office of Attorney General for ordering a military operation to disperse the redshirt rally in April-May 2010, which claimed more than 90 lives, including freelance Italian photojournalist Fabio Polenghi and Reuters cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto, and injured more than a thousand.

Apart from the indictment of Abhisit and Suthep, no army personnel or unit has been pinpointed for carrying out the deadly dispersal operations. Department of Special Investigation (DSI) chief Tarit Pengdith justified the omission saying that the military was protected under Article 70 of the Criminal Code since they were performing their duty honestly at the order of their commanders.

The charges initiated in December 2012 by the DSI has been questioned for being politically motivated, and criticized for allegedly aiming at nudging the Democrats to vote for the bill.

Recommendations ignored

Legal opinion held that the bill failed to clearly spell out conditions to be met before a crime is to be pardoned, since “blanket” amnesty covered both serious human rights violations and non-political motives.

“This is tantamount to condoning impunity and that human rights abuses will be repeated,” a 30 October statement of Thai Netizens Network said.

Although purporting to facilitate reconciliation, the amnesty bill failed to heed the recommendations made by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up during Abhisit’s term with a two-year mandate ending on September 2012.

Among the key recommendations was to urge the governments to uphold a due process in the prosecution of actors of all parties involved in the conflict from before the 2006 coup to the 2010 political violence. TRC cautioned against the politicized prosecution resulting from political manoeuvres during the respective terms of the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties, which tended to exaggerate the charges or proceed with trials despite weak evidence.

The TRC reminded that violations of the emergency rule, offences against to the monarchy, and criminal charges for street protests all had the political conflict as the root cause. It recommended that defendants should all be granted bail, or if held under remand, should be detained separately from those accused of common crimes.

In regard to offences against the monarchy, the TRC recommended prosecutors to exercise discretion and to try only cases with legal merit, rather than allow rival camps to use lese majeste allegations against each other.

Outside the blanket

The amnesty bill directly countered this specific TRC admonition by exempting those charged or convicted with lese majeste under Section 112 of the Thai Penal Code during the period of political turmoil. This was the only class of crimes to be excluded from the scope of the bill, which was expanded to include crimes between 2004 and 2013, including murder and corruption.

Lese majeste crimes account for a large number of cases filed involving protesters, particularly between 2008 and 2011. Several of these cases resulted in acquittals of the suspects – despite being denied bail and effectively serving jail sentences – because of the weak evidence or proving the severity of the acts.

On the other hand, landmark verdicts in connection with alleged acts of lese majeste have been delivered with profound impact on the online expression and press freedom.

For example, despite expert testimony that it was possible to hijack a mobile phone identity to send messages, the court convicted Ampon Tannoppakul, 61, in 2011 under Section 112 and Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act (CCA) for sending lese majeste text messages via mobile phone to a secretary of then-prime minister Abhisit. Ampon’s 20- year prison sentence, or 5 years for each message, is the harshest ever penalty for a lese majeste crime. He died of cancer in May 2012 while serving his jail term, including more than a year of pre-trial detention.

Another case with chilling effect on free expression is the May 2012 criminal conviction of online political news website manager Chiranuch Premchaiporn under Article 15 of the CCA. Chiranuch was sentenced to an eight-month suspended jail term for failing to delete users’ comments deemed as insulting the monarchy from the prachatai.com web-board quickly enough. The verdict on Chiranuch was upheld recently in October, with the court emphasizing the duty of everyone to protect the monarchy, and even chiding her as a senior professional who ought to have known better.

In another landmark conviction in January 2013, the Criminal Court found magazine editor and labor activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk guilty of spreading false information to incite hatred towards the monarch and sentenced him to an 11-year imprisonment for publishing two articles in the Voice of Thaksin magazine in 2010.The court ruled that as an editor he had a duty to review articles before publishing them. When the verdict was delivered, Somyot had already been in jail for almost two years, after being denied 12 requests for bail.

Somyot’s lawyers earlier filed a petition with the Constitutional Court to challenge the constitutionality of the Section 112 and lost. The court ruled that the monarchy was entitled to protection under Article 8 of the 2007 Constitution since it is vital to national security. The ruling upheld that speech penalties arising from section 112 does not violate constitutional guarantees to an individual’s right to freedom of opinion and expression.

However, some lese majeste convictions, like Chiranuch and Somyot’s, are cases in which the defendants did not do the criminal acts themselves. Other cases of indirect lese majeste involved using metaphors or an omission any mention of the institution of but were construed as defaming the monarchy by taking into account the context in which those remarks were expressed.

These court decisions have far reaching effects to free speech, and have also taken its toll on the media environment by compromising journalist professionalism and ethics.

Both the Pheu Thai and Democrat governments have shied away from tabling the reform of lese majeste laws as part of the national reconciliation process to move the country forward. So far, the handling of the lese majeste issue which sparked global concern for its impact on free expression is in keeping with a January 2012 joint statement by all lawmakers pledging not to touch Section 112. The statement has disappointed a section of the redshirt supporters of Pheu Thai from whose ranks colleagues have been convicted or awaiting trial for Section 112 offences.

Farther from resolution

Instead of bringing the process of national reconciliation process closer, the amnesty bill only served to widen the gap of understanding and corroded the trust building process to heal polarization besetting Thai politics since 2006.

Ultimately, the controversial amnesty bill was unanimously shelved by the Senate on 11 November, after the Pheu Thai-led government backtracked, in a bid to calm down the heated political situation.

The amnesty bill went down as another record of an attempt by ruling parties – the Democrats being no exception – to manipulate its executive power and legislative majority to hijack the reconciliation process in its favour.

At this point, Thailand is not any closer to resolving the deep political divide that has spilled over into the media landscape, and that has seen the increasing use of distorted information and hate speech by the two political camps and their supporters.

[The author, Kulachada Chaipipat, is SEAPA’s Campaigns and Advocacy Manager.]