Legal eagles fight for human rights

national March 07, 2016 01:00

By Chularat Saengpassa
The Natio

8,955 Viewed

Woman-led association champions cases where junta targets activists for political expression

DEFENDING socially handicapped individuals demands a strong will and that applies when a group of legal eagles are united to fight against the junta’s alleged human-rights violations.
A day after the 2014 coup, Yaowalak Anuphan quickly resolved to refocus her attention on human-rights cases, expecting them to multiply in the post-coup period. 
“We want to stand up for the rule of law and democracy,” she said about her decision to start up the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Centre. 
Yaowalak has long fought for the protection of women. Her ideology and determination were shared by many others. Today, they run one of the most prominent women-led groups. 
Established on May 24, 2014 and funded by foreign organisations, the centre has risen to prominence fast. 
Over the past two years, it was quite common to see a lawyer from the centre show up at police stations whenever people were summoned and detained under martial law or the edicts of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). 
“After learning about the arrests, we always try to find out where they’re being held and how they’re doing,” she said. 
“We want to ensure that their rights are not violated.” 
Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, who has also been active in civil society , said she quickly decided to work for the centre because she was aware that some people would need lawyers by their side in the wake of the coup. 
Her work, of course, means something to society and individuals. 
Poonsuk has been a lawyer for Sgt-Major Apichart Wongsawat, an activist and academic who was prosecuted for attending an anti-coup rally in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre on May 23, 2014. 
He was detained for seven days under martial law initially. On top of that, he was also locked up for 23 days during the investigation.
On February 11 this year, the Criminal Court dropped the case against Apichart on technical grounds. The Crime Suppression police that pursued his case, after all, do not really have the mandate to initiate proceedings against him. 
“Lawyers need to play a role here too, not just academics or media,” Poonsuk said about protecting people’s rights. 
Yaowalak said she was very proud of her team, which now has six full-time employees, including Pawinee Chumsri, and eight part-time volunteer lawyers. 
“Women here are courageous and fiercely determined. Thanks to them, our centre still stands firm,” she said. 
Last year, to mark the first anniversary of the 2014 coup, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Centre compiled a report on Thailand’s human-rights situation and concluded that the junta had violated the basic rights of people. 
Examples of violations, according to the report, were the junta’s moves to send various figures for attitude-readjustment programmes and to bar people from speaking up even when certain state policies or operations affect their lives. Even the centre’s press conference on the launch of the report had to be cancelled. 
Just as the second anniversary of the 2014 coup was approaching, Yaowalak said she was still concerned about the NCPO summons and the possibility that some civilians would be tried in military courts. 
“The summoning and related operation is not in line with human-rights principles. In fact, officials must inform the relatives of the summoned where they have been detained,” she said. 
“But after they are summoned and sent to detention centres, they are subject to physical examination, even pelvic examination as if they were prisoners,” she said. 
The centre was particularly concerned about the military courts, because it was not possible to appeal their verdicts. 
In recognition of the centre’s hard work, the French Embassy bestowed an award on the centre late last year to mark Human Rights Day. “I hope the award has made clear to the NCPO that human rights are important,” Yaowalak said. 
Sirikan Charoensiri, a young lawyer at her centre, said she had never lost hope in defending the rights of people. 
“As a lawyer, I must not lose hope. It’s okay to get disappointed sometimes. That’s natural. But the bottom line is that we must have the hope to do something better,” she said. 
Sirikan, one of the legal representatives for the 14 New Democracy Movement activists, does not lose hope even though her work at the centre has landed her in legal trouble. 
She is now facing charges of refusing to obey a competent official and concealing evidence relating to the incident on the night of June 26 last year when she did not allow police to search her car and seize her clients’ phones without a warrant. 
“That’s the first case I handled as a lawyer, too,” she said. 
Yaowalak said she had no idea how long her centre would remain active, because election dates have not been set yet. 
She firmly denied allegations that her centre was affiliated with the red shirts. 
“No, we are neutral. We don’t take sides. It’s just that many of the people whose rights were affected during the post-coup period are reds.” 
Yaowalak expects her fight to continue. As the International Women’s Day is to be celebrated globally tomorrow, she is glad that Thai female lawyers have bigger space in society to achieve their mission.