Lese majeste used by the junta to silence a witness

22 07 2018

When she was arrested, Nattatida Meewangpla was a 36 year-old volunteer nurse, accused by the military dictatorship of terrorism and lese majeste. She was abducted by the military on 17 March 2015 and held incommunicado for six days, then charged with “terrorism,” and was later with lese majeste.

Not so uncommon you might think. Especially since the 2014 coup, as the military wanted to crush all anti-monarchy speech and thought, lese majeste victims were usually dragged off by the junta’s uniformed thugs.

But the arrest and continued jailing of Nattathida was unusual. The lese majeste complaint was made by Internal Security Operation Command Col Wicharn Joddaeng, who claims Nattatida copied a text that insulted the monarchy from one Line chat room and posted it in two other chat groups.

Who knows if she did anything of the kind, but this charge was devised to have her jailed as quickly as possible as a threat to the military dictatorship. The threat she posed was as a witness to the murder of six individuals at Wat Pathum Wanaram Temple by soldiers during the crackdown on red shirts on 19 May 2010.

More than three years later, still in jail and never allowed bail, Nattathida’s trial has begun. On 20 July 2018, a “first witness hearing was held behind closed door[s]…”.

Secret trials are not unusual for lese majeste, where laws and constitutions are regularly ignored, but in this case, the military wants nothing said in court to be public for fear that it may incriminate them.

The Bangkok Post’s editorial on her cases is a useful effort to get some media attention to this case of cruel incarceration and the military junta’s efforts to suppress evidence of its murderous work in 2010 under the direction of then military-backed premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban, Army boss Gen Anupong Paojinda and the commander of troops Gen Prayudh Chan-ocha.

The Post describes Nattathida as “a key witness in the deaths of six people killed during the military’s dispersal of red-shirt protests in 2010…”.

The Post seems to get the date of her 2015 lese majeste charging wrong, but these charges and their details are murky, and meant to be. It reports:

Ms Nathathida was in March 2015 charged as a suspect linked to the blast and had been held in prison until July 24 last year when she was finally granted bail. But the police filed a lese majeste charge, an offence under Section 112 of the Criminal Code, against her on the same day resulting in immediate custody without bail.

The editorial notes that her “trial for another case involving a 2015 bombing at the Criminal Court is also moving at a snail’s pace,” describing the slow pace as “questionable.” It thinks the deliberate foot-dragging suggests the charges are based on shaky grounds. It adds:

The cases yet again raise doubts about the legitimacy of the prosecution of many politically-driven cases in the post-2014 coup era, especially lese majeste cases.

Her lawyer Winyat Chartmontri has told the media that “many witnesses, who are government officials, in the blast case had postponed court hearings several times resulting in the case being delayed.”

As the editorial noted, these “two cases not only kept her in jail but may also have reduced the credibility of her as a witness in court over the six deaths at Wat Pathum Wanaram near Ratchaprasong intersection.” More though, they prevent her testimony being heard.

Why is the military so concerned? As the Post observes:

In 2012, she testified at the South Bangkok Criminal Court as a paramedic volunteer stationed at the temple, giving a vivid account of how she saw from close range gunshots being fired from the Skytrain tracks where soldiers were on guard. She did not hear gunshots fired back by protesters, she said.

The editorial makes the mistake of believing that “criminal prosecution requires solid proof of both motive and the scale of damage their act could have caused,” but that is never the case when it comes to lese majeste. And, under the military dictatorship, the courts have generally acted as a tool of the regime, often ignoring law.

The Post knows this, limply proclaiming that “[l]aw enforcement officers should not overlook … universal legal rules when handling cases that could send someone to prison.” Yet in “politically motivated” cases under the military junta, law and procedure goes out the window.

In concluding, the editorial also mentions “that tragic day at Wat Pathum Wanaram,” noting that the courts are “supposed to hold the perpetrators accountable.”

The problem with puppet law courts is that they work for the perpetrators.


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