Thailand: accountability for killings of land rights activists demands involvement of Department of Special Investigations
Today’s acquittal of the only person facing charges for the killing of lands rights activist Chai Bunthonglek, highlights the urgent need for the Thai Government to protect human rights defenders in the country, said the ICJ today.
In addition to Chai Bunthonglek, a member of the Southern Peasant Federation of Thailand (SPFT), three other SPFT activists have been killed since 2010: Montha Chukaew and Pranee Boonrat in 2012 and Somporn Pattanaphum in 2010.
No one has been prosecuted for these three killings, reportedly due to insufficient evidence obtained by the police.
“The result in this case underscores the pressing need for the Department of Special Investigations to investigate the pattern of killings of land rights activists in southern Thailand,” said Kingsley Abbott, ICJ International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia.
Chai Bunthonglek was killed on 11 February 2015. All four SPFT activists killed since 2010 had been advocating for the land rights of poor farmers who are in a dispute with the Government and a palm oil company operated by Jiew Kang Jue Pattana Co. Ltd.
“Today’s acquittal means that no-one has been held accountable for the killing of Chai Bunthonglek, representing another failure to bring to justice those responsible for crimes against human rights defenders and, in particular, those trying to uphold social and economic rights in Thailand,” said Abbott.
“The ICJ calls on the Thai Government to ensure justice and effective remedies for human rights defenders.”
On 15 March, the Viangsra Provincial Court acquitted Santi Wanthong, who was accused of driving the motorcycle from which Chai Bunthonglek, 61-years-old, was shot six times and killed in front of his family in Klong Sai Pattana in Surat Thani Province.
Two other suspects initially arrested for the crime were not indicted.
The DSI has the power to assume jurisdiction over “special” criminal cases including complex cases that require special inquiry, crimes committed by organized criminal groups, and cases where the principal suspect is “an influential person.”
The trial court held today that prosecution witnesses could not properly identify the defendant, and that a cap and gun collected from his house could not be positively identified as belonging to the man who had been involved in attacking Chai Bunthonglek.
Chai Bunthonglek’s family intends to appeal the verdict, the ICJ has been told. They have 30 days to file an appeal.
Witnesses in the case, as well as members of SPFT, have expressed their fear of further attacks. Suraphon Songru, member of the Steering Group of the SPFT, told the ICJ: “the perpetrators – which the community believe may be linked to the local authorities in the area – are still out there, which means another killing could take place.”
The ICJ called on Thai authorities to ensure the safety of all witnesses and ensure the safety of all human rights defenders, including members of SPFT, in Surat Thani.
Santi Wanthong was formally indicted on the following charges: murder of another person (section 288 of the Thai Criminal Code); jointly premeditated murder (section 289 of the Thai Criminal Code); possession of a firearm without a permit (section 371 of the Thai Criminal Code); and possession of ammunition for a firearm without a permit (sections 7, 8 and 72 of the Gun, Ammunition, Explosive Substance, Firework and Artificial Gun Weapon Act).
SPFT was formed in 2008 and campaigns for the right to agricultural land in the Khlong Sai Pattana and Permsub area, in Surat Thani Province and other areas in the region.
Thailand is a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and had its review before the Committee of the ICESCR in June 2015, where the killings of land rights defenders was particularly noted. The Committee urged Thailand to “adopt all measures necessary to protect human rights activists, including those working to defend economic, social and cultural rights, from any and all acts of intimidation, harassment and killings and to ensure that perpetrators of such acts are brought to justice.” The obligation to protect the right to life and other rights of human rights defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights, and to take effective criminal proceedings in response to such crimes, is also an obligation of Thailand under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and is recognized in numerous UN standards on protection of human rights defenders.
Kingsley Abbott, International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia, t +66 94 470 1345 ; e: kingsley.abbott(a)icj.org
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