PPT reproduces a recent Asian Human Rights Commission statement regarding the sentencing of police officers involved in a case of extrajudicial murder from 2004. We posted on this twice a few days ago (here and here).
The AHRC statement bears on some of the concerns expressed in our second post regarding the bailing of the officers involved and the double standards at work in this act. However, a point that we missed in those earlier posts is that the link to the War on Drugs in this case is not as clear as the headlines insist (including our own). As the AHRC report indicates, this terrible killing took place in July 2004, some time after the period that most refer to as the War on Drugs. For example, a Wikileaks cable from November 2006, about an investigation into the deaths associated with the War on Drugs, states:
In February 2003, [Prime Minister] Thaksin [Shinawatra] launched a national campaign targeting drug dealers and traffickers as a threat to society and national security. Over the next several months hundreds of alleged drug offenders were killed. Estimates of the number of people killed vary. Post [i.e. Embassy] estimates the number killed as a result of this policy to be approximately 1,300. Other estimates range as high as 2,600.
Human Rights Watch states:
In February 2003, the Thai government, under then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, launched a ‘war on drugs’, purportedly aimed at the suppression of drug trafficking and the prevention of drug use. In fact, a major outcome of this policy was arbitrary killings. In the first three months of the campaign there were some 2800 extrajudicial killings [PPT: The latter figure is incorrect as it counts all murders in the period].
The point is that the reprehensible murder of Kiettisak Thitboonkrong was linked to the War on Drugs when: “Following his death, his family launched a campaign to investigate and hold the police in Kalasin accountable for his murder and the murders of 27 other individuals by police of the same station during and following the so-called “war on drugs”.
This distinction may be a small point in processes that have seen literally thousands of people murdered by state authorities over several decades. Yet getting events in the right context seems important when trying to end the impunity enjoyed by state officials when they kill other citizens. That said, the main issue remains that this police station had a murderous reputation for extrajudicial killings that were also a mark of the War on Drugs and deserves judicial intervention on all cases attributed to it.
THAILAND: Five police convicted of murder in landmark ruling
The Asian Human Rights Commission greets with cautious optimism the landmark ruling of the Criminal Court in Bangkok to convict five police officers for the murder of a teenager during the “war on drugs” in 2004, and hopes that it will serve as a precedent of sorts for other cases of police and state officials accused of similar crimes.
On 30 July 2012, in Black Case No. 3252/2552, 3466/2552, the Criminal Court found five out of the six police officers accused of murdering Kiettisak Thitboonkrong, age 17, in 2004. The six defendants were Pol. Snr. Sgt. Maj. Angkarn Kammoonna, Pol. Snr. Sgt. Maj. Sutthinant Noenthing, Pol. Snr. Sgt. Maj. Phansilp Uppanant, Pol. Lt. Col. Samphao Indee, Pol. Col. Montree Sriboonloue, and Pol. Lt. Col. Sumitr Nanthasathit, all officers stationed in Kalasin Province, northeast Thailand. The police had arrested Kiettisak on 16 July 2004 for allegedly stealing a motorcycle. When his family heard this news, they went to the police station and attempted to talk to him. After returning multiple times, his grandmother was allowed to witness his interrogation on 22 July 2004 and told to wait for him to be bailed out later that day. But Kiettisak never came home and several days later his mutilated body was found in a neighbouring province. Following his death, his family launched a campaign to investigate and hold the police in Kalasin accountable for his murder and the murders of 27 other individuals by police of the same station during and following the so-called “war on drugs”. After an extraordinary effort on their part to bring the killers of Kiettisak to justice, the court finally reached its verdict just over a week ago. It sentenced three police officers to death for their actions, while one it sentenced to life imprisonment, and one to seven years in prison.
It took Kiettisak’s relatives seven years to secure this outcome. At their urging, in 2005, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) in the Ministry of Justice began investigating the case. It spent three years. On 18 May 2009, the public prosecutor charged six police officers with premeditated murder and with concealing Kiettisak’s corpse to hide the cause of death. Because this case was investigated under the Special Investigation Act it was sent to the Criminal Court in Bangkok. The public prosecutor conducted the case and Mr. Kittisapt Thitboonkrong, father of Mr. Kiettisak, successfully sought and obtained permission from the court to act as a joint plaintiff, represented by lawyers from the Lawyers’ Council of Thailand working pro bono. The hearings took another three years. Observers for the AHRC attended many of the hearings throughout the duration of the trial.
In its verdict, the Criminal Court found Pol. Snr. Sgt. Maj. Angkarn Kammoonna, Pol. Snr. Sgt. Maj. Sutthinant Noenthing guilty of premeditated murder and hiding a corpse. It sentenced them to death. Pol. Lt. Col. Sumitr Nanthasathit it found guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Pol. Col. Montree Sriboonloue it found guilty of abusing his authority to aid in protecting his subordinates from criminal prosecution and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. The Criminal Court found Pol. Lt. Col. Samphao Indee innocent of involvement in the murder of Mr. Kiettisak.
With some reservations, the AHRC considers this ruling an important step towards ending impunity for state violence in Thailand. It is the first case of which the AHRC is aware in which police responsible for killings during the “war on drugs” under the government of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have been held to account for their crimes. It is also the first case arising from the so-called “war” that the DSI investigated. In February 2003, Thaksin announced the beginning of the “war” with an unequivocal message to police and other state officials–that any and all necessary actions should be taken to free the country of the drug menace, including killing. Over the next three months, it became clear that the message served as a carte blanche for the use of murderous violence against citizens, rather than using the provisions of the Criminal Code to investigate and prosecute. By May 2003, an estimated number of over 2500 people had been killed. Kalasin Province was the first province in the country that the government declared had “won” the war. This ephemeral victory was achieved at the cost of many lives taken illegally, at the hands or bidding of state agents. Kiettisak was but one victim.
Rather than holding state officials who used extrajudicial violence against these citizens to account, in the worst cases, perpetrators of crimes have been rewarded. In most cases they have been tacitly and conveniently ignored. One of the long-term effects of this approach has been the further consolidation of impunity for state violence in Thailand. Therefore, this case stands out among other cases of extrajudicial killing in Thailand over the last ten years, in which courts have been unwilling to hold state officials to account, notably in the cases of the mass deaths in custody following the Tak Bai incident, and the April-May 2010 killings. Even in cases in which courts have ruled that a citizen has died while in state custody due to the actions of state officials, such as the March 2009 torture and death of Imam Yapa Kaseng, the actions of state officials have been classed as matters of official “duty” and they have been exempted from allegations of murder. This is the larger context in which Kiettisak was murdered, in which his relatives and other Kalasin residents struggled to secure justice and accountability, and against which the Criminal Court gave its ruling.
Given that this is also the first case in which a court decision has been reached, the AHRC welcomes the guilty verdict as a clear sign that the judiciary is willing to hold police to account for their use of extrajudicial violence against citizens. At the same time, the AHRC as a matter of principle opposes the death penalty under all circumstances, and calls for the sentences in this case to be reviewed, such that the convicted police officers instead receive appropriate prison terms.
Additionally, the AHRC is gravely concerned that the convicted officers have obtained bail pending appeal. The convictions for these sentences are of such gravity that good reason exists to expect that the convicted police will attempt to evade punishment by absconding or other means. They may also seek to obtain revenge against one or more persons who testified against them. In the well-known case of disappeared human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, the one officer convicted of an offence in connection with his disappearance himself subsequently disappeared, and is suspected to have faked his own death; he was subsequently acquitted on appeal. In the meantime, Somchai’s family received frequent threats against their own lives. The AHRC fears that in this case too the convicted police if allowed to walk free pending appeal may yet find ways and means to pervert the course of justice and undermine this hard-fought result. Consequently, it urges that the granting of bail be revoked and the five convicted officers be imprisoned while awaiting appeal outcomes.
Finally, the text of the court decision was not read in its entirety on the day the decision was announced in the Criminal Court, and the Asian Human Rights Commission is awaiting the release of the full judgment by the Criminal Court. We call on the Criminal Court to make this important decision available to the public as soon as possible. In the coming weeks, the AHRC will undertake a detailed analysis of the court decision in the case of the murder of Kiettisak Thitboonkrong with respect to the political and legal context and history of impunity for state violence in Thailand as well as the relevant international human rights standards.
Update: In addition to the above statement, the AHRC has forwarded a statement by Thailand’s Human Rights Lawyers Association, Union for Civil Liberty, Campaign Committee for Human Rights, and Peace and Human Rights Resource Center. As many of the details are similar to those above, PPT provides a link to the statement rather than copying it.