Human Rights Watch urges Thai lawmakers to drop plan for military detention of civilians

Thailand's legislators should scrap a proposal for the military to detain civilians for up to three months with no judicial oversight, rights group Human Rights Watch said on Friday. -- PHOTO: AFP
Thailand's legislators should scrap a proposal for the military to detain civilians for up to three months with no judicial oversight, rights group Human Rights Watch said on Friday. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's legislators should scrap a proposal for the military to detain civilians for up to three months with no judicial oversight, rights group Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

The measure, to be considered by the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly by the end of February, strengthens the military's wide-ranging powers, and allows army commanders to detain civilians arbitrarily, the group said. "Enshrining detention without charge and military trials of civilians will perpetuate dictatorship, not democracy, in Thailand," Mr Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The army seized power in Thailand last May, saying it needed to restore order after six months of political deadlock. The military detained hundreds of academics, journalists and activists, but released them later.

The junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has overseen a period of stability following the coup by employing strong-arm tactics to keep a lid on dissent. It decreed that military tribunals would replace civilian courts to try some offences, with violators of the junta's orders facing military trials.

Thailand's military rulers have rejected calls, including one by a senior United States diplomat last month, to lift martial law, which bans all political gatherings.

The law now lets the authorities detain suspects for up to 48 hours, with the courts having to approve any extension. "The proposed amendment is just the junta's latest broken promise to return the country to rights-respecting, democratic rule," Mr Adams added.

The army said rights groups had misunderstood the contemplated changes to the law, officially known as the 1955 Act on the Organization of Military Courts, and they would only cover emergencies.

"This law will only impact soldiers or those who are in the custody of military courts," army spokesman Winthai Suvaree told reporters. "Rights groups have misunderstood this issue," he added.

"The clause in the law will only be used in cases relating to military courts and gives commanders powers only in emergency cases."