Asia - Pacific

Thai human rights lawyers under pressure from junta

Law center founded after 2014 coup says junta looking for way to block its publication of data involving cases such as alleged torture, arbitrary detention

Thai human rights lawyers under pressure from junta BANGKOK, THAILAND - FEBRUARY 16: Thai Lawyer Sirikan Charoensiri talks during an interview about the importance of defending civil rights and public freedoms in the current period in Thailand, at the 'Thai Lawyers for Human Rights' office in Bangkok, Thailand on February 16, 2016. ( Guillaume Payen - Anadolu Ajansı )

By Max Constant


Human rights lawyers expressed concern Tuesday about the challenges they face under Thailand’s military regime, telling Anadolu Agency that pressure on them has been increasing as they publish data directly affecting the junta’s credibility.

The chief of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights center (TLHR), established in the immediate aftermath of the May 2014 coup, said that they had originally sought to offer legal assistance to those arrested or summoned by the military.

“Lately, our work has become more difficult,” said Yaowalak Anuphan, who had served as a lawyer for over 20 years – particularly in the fields of refugees’ and women’s rights – before the center was founded.

“In the last 18 months, we have published many data concerning directly the activities of the National Council for Peace and Order [NCPO],” she said, calling the junta by its official name.

“So the NCPO is looking for a way to tackle our lawyers’ center and to block the publication of data.”

Those at the center say they have lately been spotting plainclothes police officers lurking around the office, which has released potentially damaging information involving cases of alleged torture under military detention and arbitrary arrests of student activists, among others.

Its lawyers have not remained unaffected by those opposed to their efforts, as some military-backed websites accusing them of “being traitors to the Thai nation” have even appeared online.

Charges were even brought against one of the lawyers earlier this month, after she refused to grant police permission to search her car without a warrant in June last year.

Sirikan Charoensiri, who has been defending 14 students accused of sedition, told Anadolu Agency that the officers had impounded her car, prompting her to file a malfeasance charge against them.

“The message behind [this] is that [the police and military] have full power and that if they want to search my car, they can do so now,” she said Tuesday.

She underlined that authorities had used the incident as an opportunity “to set an example for other lawyers who would come out and defend this kind of high-profile criticism”.

“The fact that I filed charges against them really made them upset, because it is challenging their power,” she added.

Recounting how the center was founded in reaction to a wave of arrests by the military of people protesting the 2014 coup, Anuphan described their first clients as “those who were using their right to freedom of expression by publicly stating their opinion about the coup and were violating the NCPO’s orders by doing so.”

After the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra was overthrown, hundreds of activists, politicians, journalists and academics critical of the putsch were summoned for what the military called “adjustment sessions” -- often for the maximum seven-day period authorized by martial law, but sometimes longer.

The workload of the center’s lawyers, however, quickly piled up with cases of people alleging they had been tortured after being placed in military detention on charges of throwing grenades before the coup at protesters opposed to Yingluck’s government.

They have since taken up the task of defending an increasing number of people accused of violating Thailand’s lese-majeste law, one of the harshest in the world under which those accused of defaming or insulting the monarchy face a jail term of 3-15 years.

Since the coup, lese-majeste suspects have been tried before military courts where there is no right of appeal.

“Our main focus now is to try to guarantee the right to justice, be it in front of a civilian court or in front of a military court,” Anuphan said Tuesday, stressing that she deplores that the “rule of law has now been replaced by the rule of the NCPO”.

“We are especially disappointed that the judges are not exercising anymore their role of checks-and-balances,” she added.

Besides providing legal assistance to people arrested by the junta, the center has also compiled data about local communities affected by the junta’s policies on natural resources, such as its reforestation project.

The military regime’s discontent with the TLHR became clear in June when the junta forced the center to cancel a press conference for the release of a report on their yearlong activities.

Authorities, however, have stopped short of directly asking the center to halt its activities.

“I think they would not dare to go that far, because Thailand is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Anuphan, adding that the support of a large network of local and international NGOs – including the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists – has also been crucial.

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