Giles Ji Ungpakorn on Thai courts and prisons

February 18, 2012

Some facts everyone should know about Thai courts and prisons

Giles Ji Ungpakorn: February 17, 2012

Thailand has the 17th highest proportion of citizens in prison in the world, with 340 prisoners per 100,000 people. This compares to 64 for Norway and 94 for France.

1. Thailand’s judiciary only serve the authoritarian ruling elite. They are protected by a draconian “contempt of court” law, much like lese majeste, which prevents citizens or the media from criticising any judges or court judgements. For this reason there is no transparency or accountability in the judicial system. There is also no jury system and Thailand locks up political prisoners who dare to express anti-establishment views.

2. Judges, police and court officials treat the general population with contempt. The poor are usually “guilty” before trial. Often judges do not bother to come into the court and defendants have to speak to the judge through a close-circuit TV. On many occasions judges speak so quietly that defendants and members of the public cannot hear what they are saying or what they have decided about the case. Prisoners awaiting trial are often locked in police vans in the hot sun for hours. Court official create obstacles to granting bail in order to force poor people into buying expensive commercial bail bonds from entrepreneurs. In the case of lese majeste, the general population and the media cannot discuss any case and debate its merits as everything is secret.

3. The basic premise that defendants are innocent until proven guilty is never applied in practice, despite being written in the Constitution. Many defendants, especially in lese majeste cases, are refused bail before trial. The mere accusation that people have “sold drugs”, “are seeking to overthrow the monarchy” or “are terrorists” is enough for mass extra-judicial killings.

4. Defendants in trials are shackled and forced to wear inhuman prison uniforms. It is like the Middle-Ages. This means that they are abused before the outcome of the trial and have to attend court looking like “criminals”. This results in miscarriages of justice. This applies to many cases, including lese majeste trials. In lese majeste trials you can be found guilty even if what you said and wrote was factually true.

5.  There is no genuine debate in Thai society about the role of prisons. Prisoners who are found guilty and locked-up have no human rights what so ever and few people care. The main reason for this is that the Thai ruling class does not even regard ordinary people as “citizens with rights”. They are made to grovel to the rich and powerful and prisoners are treated even worse. So are migrant workers for neighbouring countries.

6. Thai prison conditions are appalling. Often at night prisoners are chained together, 30 to a room, with no proper beds. The toilets are a disgrace, the food is very bad, there are no proper libraries or exercise facilities and the prison guards are totally corrupt. In short, prisoners are treated like animals. Prisoners are also made to work in the streets of Bangkok, digging out filthy slime, by hand, from drain pipes.

7. Thai prisons are full of poor people, mainly on charges related to theft and drugs. There is no discussion about the causes of crime or the need for drug policies which reduce harm. For the rich and powerful, the sons of corrupt politicians and the Generals, all their crimes go unpunished. Politicians and the Military can just shoot down unarmed civilians with absolute impunity. They have done this in 2010, 2004, 1992, 1976 and 1973.

8. Punishment in the Thai judicial system is totally out of proportion. People get just a few years in prison for murder or violence, while lese majeste prisoners are sentenced to anything between 20 and 40 years. Those who commit mass murder of demonstrators and those who stage military coup are rewarded.

That is why the political reforms proposed by the Nitirat Group and those reforms proposed by all those who want to abolish or reform lese majeste are so important today. That is why the old order, including the Peua Thai Government, the Military, and even the UDD leadership, are so opposed to any change. They cloak themselves in lies about “reconciliation”. But “reconciliation” can only start when the mass murderers are sent to trial, the political prisoners released and the judicial system is thoroughly reformed.


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