US report calls out 'severe' curbs on human rights

US report calls out 'severe' curbs on human rights
WRITER: ONLINE REPORTERS AND AP

Basic freedoms restricted, arbitrary arrests surge under junta, annual human rights evaluation concludes

Thailand has seen "severe" restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and the media since last year's military coup, while human rights problems persist in the Far South, the United States concluded in its annual human rights report released in Washington Thursday.

In its compendium of reports about the human-rights situation during 2014 in countries around the world, the US State Department chronicles the sweeping changes imposed by the military, detailing the "numerous decrees severely limiting civil liberties, including restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press".

The report states no outright opinions or judgements on the events that transpired last year. In fact, in introducing the report, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was not intended to be "sanctimonious," as every country, including the United States, had room for improvement.

"We couldn't help but have humility when we have seen what we have seen in the last year in terms of racial discord and unrest. So we approach this with great self-awareness," he said.

But in the preface to the report, Mr Kerry placed Thailand alongside China, Egypt, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia as countries that were stifling the development of civil society.

"The military overthrew a democratically elected government, repealed the constitution, and severely limited civil liberties," he said. "Subsequent efforts by the military government to rewrite the country's constitution and recast its political intuitions raised concerns about lack of inclusivity in the process."

The lengthy chapter on Thailand details the long list of curbs put in place since May 22 as well as rights concerns that remained unresolved under democratic governments.

The report notes that, since the coup, 900 political leaders, academics and journalists have been temporarily detained. At the same time, the US noted the marked increase in lese majeste cases brought under Section 112 of the Criminal Code for defaming the monarchy.

"The interim constitution, promulgated on July 22, set the framework for the adoption of a new constitution but did not provide citizens the ability to change their government peacefully," the US writes. "Instead, it established a process in which unelected individuals would serve as interim legislators and a separate appointed body would draft a new constitution."

Other human rights problems cited include "arbitrary arrests and detention; poor, overcrowded, and unsanitary prison and detention facilities; insufficient protection for vulnerable populations, including refugees; violence and discrimination against women; sex tourism; sexual exploitation of children; trafficking in persons; discrimination against persons with disabilities, minorities, hill tribe members, and foreign migrant workers; child labour; and some limitations on worker rights."

A large percentage of the report was dedicated to the continuing strife in the three southernmost provinces.

"The most persistent human rights problems consisted of abuses by government security forces and local defence volunteers," the State Department wrote, calling out "occasional excessive use of force by security forces, including police killing, torturing, and otherwise abusing criminal suspects, detainees, and prisoners".

Police and military abuses got special attention, with the report's authors citing specific cases of alleged torture, including the case of two Myanmar men accused of the murder and rape of two British backpackers on Koh Tao in September.

"Official impunity, however, continued to be a serious problem, especially in provinces where the 2005 Emergency Decree and the 2008 Internal Security Act (ISA) remained in effect," the report said, noting that insurgents in the south also "continued to commit human rights abuses, including attacks on civilian targets".

State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor writers spent considerable portions of their 2014 Thailand assessment on detention and arbitrary arrest of coup dissenters, as well as insurgency suspects in the South.

"After the coup, security forces detained hundreds of activists and in some instances withheld information about their safety for brief periods before announcing their whereabouts," the report states, singling out the case of Kittisak Soomsri at a teacher-training centre in Bangkok. He was held for six days before being named one of the "men in black" who allegedly initiated violent acts during the 2010 street protests.

In the far South, "emergency decree provisions make it very difficult to challenge a detention before a court", the report concludes.

"Under the decree, detainees should have access to legal counsel, but in practice, there was no assurance of prompt access to counsel or family members, nor were there transparent safeguards against the mistreatment of detainees."

Furthermore, the US states, security forces are given blanket protection against prosecution for anything they do while on duty, military and police officials do not always provide suspects, particularly indigent ones, with free counsel as required by law, and the process for obtaining arrest warrants is flawed.

"The system for issuing arrest warrants was subject to misuse by police as well as a judicial tendency to approve automatically all requests for warrants," the State Department said.

"The law provides for access to counsel for criminal detainees, but lawyers and human rights groups claimed police often conducted interrogations without providing access to an attorney," the report states, adding that when free counsel is provided it was on an "intermittent, voluntary basis" and "of low quality".

The US also highlights numerous cases in which Thai police allegedly use torture to coerce confessions and took particular note of the near daily re-enactments suspects are forced to perform in front of media and the public.

"There were continued reports that security forces at times used excessive and lethal force against criminal suspects and committed or were connected to extrajudicial, arbitrary, and unlawful killings," the report said, noting that "police, military, and other agencies killed 45 suspects during the arrest process".

"The interim constitution protects 'all human dignity, rights, [and] liberties', but it does not specifically prohibit torture. Credible nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and legal entities continued to report that police and military officials occasionally tortured and beat suspects to obtain confessions, and newspapers continued to report numerous cases of citizens accusing police and other security officials of brutality."

Two cases that drew special attention in that section of the report included the disappearance and suspected killing of ethnic Karen activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen and the 29-day detention and alleged torture of red-shirt leader Kritsuda Khunasen.

It also highlighted the torture claims of two Myanmar nationals accused of killing two British tourists in September. They too were forced to re-enact their alleged murders.

"Although police regulations require that suspects 'confess' before re-enactments, police often obtained these 'confessions' by coercion, including physical assault. Human rights organisations criticised forced re-enactments because they violate the presumption of innocence and encourage violence against suspects."

Once criminal suspects pass through police stations, human rights problems continue, the US said in the report.

"Conditions in prisons and various detention centres -- including drug rehabilitation facilities and immigration detention centres -- remained poor and most were overcrowded. In some prisons sleeping accommodations were insufficient, the lack of medical care was a serious problem, and communicable diseases were widespread."

Finally, the report makes special note of the increase in prosecutions under the lese majeste law, noting "international and domestic human rights organizations and academics expressed concern over the chilling effect on freedom of expression".

The US said it was listing human rights concerns even as nongovernmental organisations in Thailand have been impeded in their efforts to address them under the junta.

"NGOs that dealt with sensitive political matters, such as opposition to government-sponsored development projects or border matters, faced periodic harassment," the US said. "Human rights workers focusing on violence in the southern provinces were particularly vulnerable to harassment and intimidation by government agents and militant groups. The government accorded very few NGOs tax-exempt status, which sometimes hampered their ability to secure adequate funding."

Thailand certainly was not alone in being criticised by the US report for human rights abuses, with China, Myanmar, Cuba and Iran targeted with more-pointed comments.

The State Department report criticised Tehran for having the second-highest execution rate in the world and said proceedings often did not comply with constitutional protections.

On Cuba, the department said that while Havana had largely eased travel restrictions in January, the government still denied passport requests for certain opposition figures, or harassed them upon their return to the country.

The report criticised Myanmar, with which the United States has been working hard to improve relations, saying abuses of minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State remained "severely troubling" despite a "broader trend of progress since 2011" in the country.

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