Benighted history of Thailand's lese majeste law darkens further

PHOTO: Reuters

Thai justice - and specifically its problematic and oft-abused lese majeste law - is under critical scrutiny yet again following a suspect's death in custody last week. In place of the transparency essential for the swift and credible resolution of this ghastly matter, coming at a time when the country is in political transition, we are offered only stoic secrecy, even as a host of questions mount at the jailhouse door.

The authorities have abjectly failed to provide a satisfactory explanation as to why the suspect, a police major, committed suicide by hanging on Friday night.

The official story as it stands, presented by Corrections Department director-general Vitaya Suriyawong late that same evening, is that Prakrom Warunprapa - charged with violating Article 112 of the Penal Code - was found hanging by the neck in his cell at a temporary-detention facility in the 11th Military Circle. He'd apparently used his shirt as a rope. Guards rushed Prakrom to the department's hospital, but he was pronounced dead.

Vitaya speculated that the prisoner took his own life because he was unable to adapt to detention. If that dubious explanation has any truth to it, it can only suggest that Prakrom was being treated quite badly indeed. Even if that were the case, surely is still leaves room to muse that he was so shamed by his alleged actions or fearful of the consequences that suicide became an option. Nor can some form of deep-seated mental disturbance be ruled out.

The affair is especially unsettling because the police officer had been assigned to a unit of the Technology Crime Suppression Division that monitors websites and social media for lese majeste content. And yet he ended up charged with the same crime himself, arrested last week alongside popular fortune-teller Suriyan "Mor Yong" Sujaritpolwong and Suriyan's secretary, Jirawong Wattanathewasilp.

Prakrom had in 1998 been sacked from the National Police Office Information Division and moved to Britain to study computer science. On his return, his commission was restored by Police General Somyot Poompanmuang and he was promoted to major.

Among the lese majeste cases he supervised were those involving former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pol Lt-General Pongpat Chayapan and Chatrawadee "Rose" Amornpat. He allegedly confiscated several of Pongpat's properties for personal use, a matter that, like his death, has yet to be properly explained.

Nor has the public been given anything close to a full breakdown of the case against Mor Yong. He and Prakrom and Jirawong had always proclaimed their loyalty to the monarchy. Whether or not these amounted to false statements is just one aspect of the case now shrouded in mystery.

Further darkening the affair is the fact that Prakrom's death in custody had a precedent in the benighted history of administering the lese majeste law. Ill treatment in prison was blamed for the 2012 death of detainee Amphon "Akong" Tangnoppakul.

By law, of course, suspects must be considered innocent until found guilty in court, and in the meantime treated with courtesy and care. They also have the right to a lawyer working in their defence and the right to family visits. Neither torture nor any kind of coercion is permitted during interrogation or passive detention.

Quite contrary to the stated wishes of His Majesty the King, the authorities continue to monitor public discourse and arrest scores of people each year they believe have criticised the monarchy. If the King is unconcerned about such criticism and in fact welcomes it as acceptable free speech, the military and the police are working from some other agenda. Their assiduousness in applying the law and their rough treatment of suspects have earned Thailand condemnation from international human-rights organisations.

We might never be told the true circumstances surrounding Prakrom's death or even the full facts involved in the case against him. But we can at least hope that his death and others will not have been in vain, and that the course of justice will shift towards more favourable waters.