Military court trials were wrong from the start: lawyer
Last week, the junta issued Order No 55/2559 to end the Military Court’s power following the coup to hear trials involving civilians. That might sound like a positive step for rights, but an experienced lawyer said the move was wrong from the start.
The international community, from the United Nations human rights body and many NGOs, called for the junta to stop trying civilians in the Military Court due to its partiality and inexperience. But from May 25, 2014 till last Monday, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) expanded the Military Court’s jurisdiction to civilians alleged to have committed crimes against the monarchy and national security.
The public has raised an eyebrow over the move and the NCPO has always had counter-explanations.
The Military Court hears trials just like civilian courts, they said, but was needed to accelerate the justice process for “sensitive cases” during “the country’s abnormal situation”.
Both military and civilian courts rely on the same Criminal Code. Defendants in both can appoint lawyers and suspects can be freed on bail. However, the Military Court comes under the Defence Ministry, which is mainly focused on security, while the Court of Justice is one of three sovereign functions for justice.
While all civilian judges must be at least barristers, those in the Military Court are not required to have legal knowledge, although military judge advocates are. This is reasonable since the Military Court was initially set up to deal only with military offenders.
Admiral Krisda Charoenpanich, the Military Court’s judge advocate-general, said all civilian cases brought to his courts had been heard by judges on legal grounds only. “That was to ensure the public that the Military Court functioned no differently from our civilian counterpart,” he said.
However, Pawinee Chumsi from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights thought differently, according to her experience in both kinds of courts.
There were not only principles and regulations that marked the difference, but also how the Military Court practically dealt with circumstances, which she said affected ways she wished to conduct hearings.
“For unknown reasons, the Military Court takes a long gap between each summons of witnesses. Each gap could last a month a two,” she said. “It means defendants are held in detention a long time, until the court is done with interrogating witnesses. This could take from several months to a year.”
Civilian courts would schedule successive days to summon witnesses so trials could advance to the next step.
The recording of hearings and rulings is normally not allowed in both courts, but in the Military Court, lawyers are sometimes also not allowed to take photocopies of dockets and documents deemed essential to lawyers. They often need to revisit details for hearings in the future.
“I was told that the judges had already read them out loud so I should be aware of the case’s details already But you can imagine it’s impossible to keep every single detail of it just by mere memory,” she said.
During trials, any remark against the NCPO, its leader Prayut or the 2014 coup would also be excluded from the Military Court’s transcripts.
“They just don’t record it in their documents at all. As if the comments never happened at all,” she said.
The Military Court also tended to be extra-sensitive about context, especially political ones, that consequently affected public access to proceedings.
“The Military Court has shut out public access to it when it comes to cases in the spotlight,” she said.
Lese majeste trials are usually conducted completely behind closed doors in both kinds of courts, she said.