23 May 2024

Rights groups are up in arms over the government’s delay in implementing key provisions of the new torture and forced disappearance prevention act, citing a frivolous reason, such as lack of equipment.

The Cabinet on February 14 approved a decree to postpone the implementation of articles 22 to 25 of the “Act on Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance” from February 22 to October 1. Government deputy spokesperson Ratchada Thanadirek said the delay in implementation of the law was because more time was needed to train officials and procure the equipment, including over 100,000 surveillance devices.

The concerned articles of the act require the responsible officials to ensure video and audio recordings during the arrest and detention process. The officials must record and report information about the detainees, including their identity, as well as physical and mental condition.

In case of death in custody, the responsible officials must report the cause of death and the location where the body was kept. Such information must be given to lawyers and relatives of the detainees upon request.

Camera shortage

The Office of National Police on January 6 requested the Cabinet to delay implementation of the four articles, as it needed more time to acquire 170,000 surveillance cameras to equip its police officers, as well as install 1,575 of those in vehicles, and 6,244 in detention facilities.

Police need a budget of at least 3.4 billion baht for procuring the equipment and devices, plus additional cost for storage in the cloud system. The budget cannot be allocated for the purpose until the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1.

In a letter to the Cabinet asking for the delay, the police also said they needed more time to train personnel to work with the high-technology equipment as well as to lay out standard procedures for practice in accordance with the new law.

“The Thai government keeps finding new reasons not to tackle the serious problems of torture and enforced disappearance in the country,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued on February 15. “All along, the police and other security officials knew training and equipment would be needed to enforce the new law, but instead they could only come up with excuses.”

A group of rights defenders, including the Human Rights Lawyers Association and Cross-Cultural Foundation, submitted an open letter to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on February 14 asking him not to delay enforcement of the law. They said the lack of equipment was not an excuse for the government to delay enforcement of any single article of the act.

The National Police office had issued an order in 2021 for police officers to operate body cameras to record their search and arrest of suspects, hence they should have allocated a budget for the equipment long before the law came into force, the group said in the letter.

Long history

Thailand’s reputation has often taken a hit due to instances of torture and forced disappearance. The United Nations recorded 76 cases of forced disappearance since the 1980s, including labor union leader Thanong Pho-an in 1991 and prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit in 2004.

Successive governments have claimed to adhere to international commitments on human rights practices, but rarely enforced them. Thailand signed the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2012 but has yet to ratify it.

Human Rights Watch said it had documented numerous cases related to counter-insurgency operations in the deep South, in which police and military officers had tortured suspected separatists. Police also reportedly tortured activists who protested against the government in October 2021.

Following a strong push from civic groups and human rights defenders, the junta-backed government under Prayut approved a draft torture and forced disappearance prevention act in 2016, but its rubber-stamp National Legislative Assembly never passed it.

The draft was reconsidered by the elected House of Representatives in late 2021 following a controversial case in August 2021 when a group of police officers tortured a drug suspect to death in Nakhon Sawan province.

The 2022 torture and forced disappearance prevention act has a long way to go through the law-making process since the first reading in the House of Representatives in September 2021. It obtained royal endorsement and was announced in the Royal Gazette in October last year, taking another 120 days before becoming effective on February 22. The decree exempted from implementation only four out of 43 articles of the law.

The rights groups said law enforcement officials had an obligation to comply with the rest of the law’s provisions effectively.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk