Death sentences for Thai Muslim separatists condemned

BANGKOK - Human rights groups Friday condemned the Thai authorities for sentencing five alleged Muslim separatists to death, saying the punishment would do little to promote peace in the violence-racked south.

The men were convicted on Wednesday by the Pattani provincial court for shooting dead four soldiers in July 2013, Thai Rath, the country's largest circulation newspaper, reported.

They were named as Ismail Daong, Masahadi Methor, Gordae Jatae, Nimuhammud Niseng, and Hisbulloh Buesa.

Violence in Thailand's Muslim-majority south has left thousands dead - the majority civilians - since 2004 across the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, which were annexed more than a century ago by Thailand.

Human rights activists hit out at the sentences in a region where the Thai military is often accused of acting with impunity.

"The death penalty is a human rights violation in itself and will do nothing to stem the tide of violence in Thailand's south," Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's Southeast Asia research director, told AFP.

"It might be tempting for the Thai authorities to think of the death penalty as a quick fix to combating insecurity, but there is no evidence whatsoever that the threat of execution acts as a particular deterrent to crime." Andrea Giorgetta, from the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), added: "Thailand has repeatedly expressed its commitment to abolish the death penalty. Unfortunately, those promises are not backed by actions as lawmakers increase, rather than reduce, the number of capital crimes and courts continue to impose death sentences." Several rounds of peace talks with some rebel groups in the south came unstuck during months of street protests in Bangkok, which were eventually ended by a military coup in May.

The ruling junta has since loudly trailed its efforts to reboot the talks, which will be facilitated by neighbouring Malaysia, where many of the rebel leaders are believed to be holed up.

But in response to a recent slew of shootings and bomb attacks on civilian "soft" targets, Thailand has vowed to step up efforts to protect locals.

Earlier this month officials distributed hundreds of assault rifles to village volunteers in a move which critics said was at odds with a pledge to find peace to a decade-long conflict within a year.

According to the FIDH, there were 623 prisoners (572 men and 51 women) under death sentence in Thailand as of August 31 this year - most for drug related offences.

The last time a death sentence was carried out was in 2009 when two men convicted of drug trafficking were killed by lethal injection.

An official at Pattani provincial court declined to comment on the recent death sentences when contacted by AFP.