Thai protesters recount alleged torture under police custody

Human Rights Watch say new allegations are a worrying shift in the police response to the country’s pro-democracy movement.

The recent wave of protests in Thailand was sparked in part by the shooting death of a 15-year-old demonstrator in August this year [File: Jack Taylor/AFP]

Once the interrogation room doors shut behind Attasith Nussa, eight plainclothes officers descended upon him quickly.

The leading officer approached the 35-year-old Thai pro-democracy protester and asked him if he came alone to the October 29 vigil in Bangkok.

“I drove my motorcycle here alone,” Attasith recalled to Al Jazeera as telling his interrogators.

Attasith said the same officer, dressed in a button-up shirt, then replied, “‘Well it’s good that you travelled alone. This way we can say you died in a motorcycle accident when they ask what happened to you.'”

Not long after the verbal threats started, violence ensued. Over the next hour, Attasith endured a brutal torture session.

The incident has left him angry and confused. He now wants to change the police system so this doesn’t continue to happen to anyone else.

It all started when police broke up a quiet vigil for Warit Somnoi, a 15-year-old protester who was mysteriously shot in the head in August 2021. Warit was in a coma for weeks and died in late October.

Police said they were trying to arrest culprits in the crowd who had earlier caused fires near a police station. At least six people were detained and brought to Din Daeng police station.

The officers accused Attasith of being one of the men involved in setting a shrine on fire in front of a police station in the Din Daeng district of Bangkok, earlier that day. Din Daeng is an area now imploding with violence between a fringe group of protesters and police.

Slammed, thrown around

Attasith said that as soon as he was arrested, police started hitting him.

“You can see this in the video clip online. They hit me for about three minutes before taking me to Din Daeng police station,” he said.

The beating lasted for an hour, with officers throwing him around the interrogation room and slamming his head into a bench.

When Attasith denied the accusations made against him, the police tried to force a confession, beating him with their fists and batons, demanding information about his alleged crimes. Multiple officers also took turns choking him repeatedly, causing him to almost pass out twice.

Police also tried to force him to give up his phone password so they could search for evidence of a crime on his device.

The interrogation went into the early evening, and Attasith was kept in the room until early morning, at which point he was moved to another room with a group of other arrested protesters. It was around that time when he was finally allowed to talk to a lawyer.

Pro-democracy protesters gather during one of the frequent anti-government rallies in Bangkok in recent months [File: Mladen Antonov/AFP]

Kicked, burned

Attasith is not the only person alleging abuse at the hands of police on that day.

Another protester, Weeraphap Wongsaman, told Thai media that he endured a very similar experience of being beaten, kicked, and burned with cigarettes.

“They burned the areas near my genitals with cigarettes and kicked my testicles,” the 18-year-old man told Prachatai, an independent online publication.

“One of the officers said, ‘You were lucky that I did not shoot you and dump your body in a river because you set fire to the shrine [in front of the police station].’ They took turns beating me up, punching and kicking me.”

Royal Thai Police spokesman Krissana Pattanacharoen denied the allegations of torture as baseless. He also justified the use of force saying the protesters initiated the violence.

“These are just accusations, anyone can say something happened in police custody without evidence,” Krissana told Al Jazeera. “And in the case that they have evidence, then they should go through the proper channels to file a complaint.”

Krissana also accused protesters of provoking the police, setting objects on fire and throwing bottles with contaminants.

“We made an announcement several times that they were breaking the law and we demanded that they stop. But they refused to follow the police demands. And because we are committed to maintaining law and order we had to step in.”

Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that these new allegations are a worrying shift from rough arrests during crowds dispersals to now possible torture – the first of its kind directed at the pro-democracy movement.

“This shows not only a glaring failure of the government to seriously address outstanding problems about torture and ill-treatment in police custody, but also a lack of commitment to live up to its own pledges to fulfil obligations to promptly investigate and prosecute these heinous acts,” he said.

“With that, there is no surprise why rogue officers think they can turn interrogation rooms in police stations into torture chambers and brutally extract confessions – calling it a quick and easy way to get their jobs done.”

The allegations of beatings also come after the death of a drug suspect, whose killing was caught on a security camera in the Thai central province of Nakhon Sawan.

The footage of the killing sent shockwaves through Thailand, stirring a heated debate over allegations of police and military brutality in the southeast Asian country.

The police officer involved in the incident, Colonel Thitisan ‘Joe Ferrari’ Uttanapol and his accomplices are now facing charges.

Attasith, the pro-democracy protester, said he was not surprised that the beating happened to him as the alleged cases are more commonplace.

Local human rights organizations have documented at least 20 custodial deaths across Thailand since 2007 and nearly 300 complaints of torture since 2014 in southern Thailand, where a conflict between separatists and Thai security forces has been raging for decades.

Cross Cultural Foundation, an organisation documenting torture and enforced disappearance, also recorded at least 101 cases of enforced disappearance since 1992, while the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances said it has received reports of at least 91 cases of enforced disappearances since 1980.

“I think in Thailand someone can be walking on the street and suddenly be grabbed by police. If there’s something they want to know, they can just grab and hurt you first then ask questions later.”

Attasith said that the experience has only made him more motivated as an activist. He added that it is time for the government to finally take steps to rectify a broken police system.

“They should do the right thing. I have not been threatened by them since. But I hope they will come again. I want to talk to them, I want to know why they did this. I want to teach them in the future about how they should act.”

Source: Al Jazeera