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Thailand: United Nations Working Group declares detention of Thai human rights defender a violation of international law

Paris-Geneva-Bangkok, December 10, 2012. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, together with the Union for Civil Liberty (UCL) in Thailand, welcome the opinion issued by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD), which found the pre-trial detention of human rights defender Mr. Somyot Prueksakasemsuk to be in contravention of international human rights law and standards and called for his release.

Somyot is in his 20th consecutive month of pre-trial detention since he was arrested on April 30, 2011, five days after he launched a petition campaign to collect 10,000 signatures required for a parliamentary review of lèse-majesté law. His applications for provisional release have been turned down repeatedly by the court. Somyot is charged with violating article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code (the lèse-majesté law) for allowing, as editor, the publication of two articles written by another person in the magazine Voice of Taksin, which are alleged to be critical of the monarchy. As is usual in such cases, the “offending” texts were not publicly revealed during the trial, making the legal process non-transparent.

Danthong Breen, Chairman of UCL, points out that Somyot remains a member of this human rights organization and is a human rights defender whose defence of freedom of speech ill deserves severe draconian legal procedure.

Contemporaries of Somyot in UCL have also expressed their support. “I have known Khun Somyot since we both served in the Union for Civil Liberty. He has shown commitment to work for the well-being of workers. Later on, he plays a greater role in the promotion of political rights in general and those of Thai workers in particular. His long career in human rights and democracy deserves praise not politically motivated charge of lèse-majesté”, said Gothom Arya, Lecturer at Mahidol University in Thailand.

“He shared the good and bad times of the workers, was dedicated and fought sincerely against the violation of their rights. He adhered to human dignity, believed in democracy, and disagreed with dictatorship and coup d'etat. Somyot was accepted and trusted by workers while he was acting as a workers' rights officer of the UCL”, said Jaturong Boonyarattanasoontorn, former Chairman of UCL.

On June 15, 2012, the UNWGAD sent a communication to the Thai government, raising its concerns and questions regarding Somyot. The Government replied on June 29, defending the lèse-majesté law as “legitimate and indispensable for national security". It went as far as describing lèse-majesté offenses as an “imminent threat to national unity and stability and, indeed, national existence”, but apparently did not provide any concrete evidence to justify such sweeping claims in general and in Somyot’s case in particular.

In its opinion on Somyot’s case rendered in August 2012, the UNWGAD agrees with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression that the lèse-majesté laws in Thailand “suppress important debates on matters of public interests, thus putting in jeopardy the right to freedom of opinion and expression”, which is protected by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

“Thailand’s use of the lèse-majesté laws, including the judicial harassment and arbitrary detention of Somyot and other persons for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, flies in the face of its binding obligations under the ICCPR to respect and protect free speech”, said Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH president.

The UNWGAD also stated that both the launching of a petition to review the lèse-majesté law and the publication of articles critical of the monarchy “fall within the boundaries of opinions and speech protected by Article 19 of the UDHR and ICCPR”. The UNWGAD called not only for his release but also for compensation to be provided to Somyot.

The UNWGAD opinion follows a series of communications from the UN regarding the lèse-majesté law. In June 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Ms. Margaret Sekaggya, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Mr. Frank La Rue, sent a joint urgent appeal to the Thai government raising several lèse-majesté cases against human rights defenders, including Somyot. In October 2011, Mr. Frank La Rue urged Thailand to amend the Computer Crimes Act and Article 112 of the Criminal Code, stating that the laws are “vague and overly broad, and the harsh criminal sanctions are neither necessary nor proportionate to protect the monarchy or national security.” In December 2011, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed its concern about the extended periods that persons accused of lèse-majesté are being held in pre-trial detention. The UNWAGD, together with three other UN Special Rapporteurs, sent another urgent appeal in December 2011 to the Thai government on Somyot, raising questions regarding his treatment and the compatibility of the lèse-majesté law with international human rights standards.

In October, the Constitutional Court ruled that the lèse majesté law does not contravene the 2007 Constitution. Somyot is due to appear before the Bangkok Criminal Court on December 19, 2012 when the Constitutional Court’s ruling is read.

“We reiterate our call for Somyot’s immediate release from detention and an end to the judicial harassment against him. We also call on representatives of the UN, development partners, and embassies in Bangkok to urgently raise their concerns with the Thai authorities on the treatment of Somyot and to send observers to the hearing of December 19 ”, said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General.

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