The Nation

Amnesty won't reveal prisoners of conscience

There is more than one prisoner of conscience in Thailand, although the number of those detained under lese majeste law and their names known to Amnesty International (AI) is "not for public consumption", said Benjamin Zawacki, AI's researcher for Thailand and Burma.

"We don't declare every time someone is a prisoner of conscience," Zawacki said in a phone interview with The Nation yesterday. Zawacki defended the failure of AI to produce an extensive list of prisoners of conscience as well as political prisoners as a result of lese majeste charges in its recent global annual report by saying there wasn't enough space to list all the numbers and names. The latest AI global report listed only one Thai man as a prisoner of conscience. Also, the number of those detained under lese majeste law is "a moving target", said Zawacki. He added that the "question of strategy" as to whether to make all the information and campaigning public was another factor taken into consideration by AI, which is a London-based global rights campaign group known for introducing the notion of "prisoners of conscience". Zawacki, who is accused by some Thai human-rights activists of being too chummy with the Thai establishment and of playing down the severity of the issue of lese majeste law, insisted that the "lack of transparency" in the numbers of those charged and held under the law was more a problem of the Thai government than of AI. The remarks came one day after an event considering the issue of lese majeste at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) at which Zawacki was a panellist. Khon Kaen-based scholar and expert on lese majeste law, David Streckfuss, told the event's audience that 397 cases of lese majeste charges had been taken up by the Criminal Court between 2006 and 2009, a 1,500-per-cent increase over the preceding period. Streckfuss said that of the 397 cases, 213 decisions were handed down by the lower court, with 40 appeals pending at the Appeals Court. He described the high number of appeals - as opposed to quick confessions and pleas for clemency through royal pardon - as "a new kind of pattern" that was emerging and acknowledged that criticism of the monarchy was on the rise. Nine lese majeste cases have been pending at the Supreme Court since 2005 with no final verdict. "Who knows why?" said Streckfuss, adding that perhaps judges wanted to "see where the wind blows", regarding the current debate about lese majeste law and the role of the monarchy. National Human Rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwat-chara, who oversees the lese majeste issue, told the FCCT that he would try to "dig out" information about all the cases in order to make the facts transparent to the public. Niran regarded the lese majeste law as infringing on the right to freedom of expression. He admitted to receiving "friendly warnings" from colleagues after he held a talk at the commission regarding the problem of lese majeste law last week. Zawacki said Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of the Prachatai online newspaper, who faces charges under the Computer Crimes Act for not deleting alleged lese majeste remarks made by others quickly enough, would be regarded as a prisoner of conscience if she was imprisoned. He added, however, that AI has a committee that determines who qualifies as a prisoner of conscience. He said that the law was "extraordinarily broad" and "not acceptable" under international human rights law and that Thailand was experiencing a "precipitous decline in freedom of expression". Social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, another speaker at the FCCT panel, said the top people in Thailand "have no moral courage" in pushing for critical discussion about the monarchy that would make the institution "transparent, accountable and work for the benefit of the people". Sulak cited one of last year's WikiLeaks items allegedly revealing that three senior Thais, including former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, and Privy Council president General Prem Tinsulanonda, did not dare to tell HM The King about what needed to be done regarding the future of the institution.


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