BANGKOK (AFP) - An inquest has ruled that security forces gunned down four unarmed Muslim men in Thailand's conflict-hit south, a lawyer said on Wednesday (Sept 14), a rare finding that could pave the way for landmark prosecutions of state officials.
Two villagers and two students were gunned down on March 25 last year in a raid on Ban To Chut village in Pattani province when security forces, acting on a tip-off, opened fire on a group of suspected militants.
Initially, the authorities said the men were armed rebels, but an investigating panel set up after the killings revealed the four to be unarmed civilians.
Wednesday's inquest at Pattani's court found "the men died from shooting by military personnel and policemen during a raid", according to Mr Abdulha Awaerputae, a lawyer from the Muslim Attorney's Centre representing the families of the dead men.
The court declined to give AFP details of the ruling.
Weeks after the killings, the Thai police said seven security officers would be charged with murder over the incident. But more than a year later no charges have been brought.
No member of the Thai security forces has ever been jailed for extrajudicial killings or torture in the restive "deep south", despite frequent allegations of abuses across a region that has seen more than 6,500 people killed since 2004.
The majority of the dead are civilians, killed by the secretive rebels or in raids by Thai security forces.
Campaigners hope the ruling will finally see criminal charges brought in the latest case to inflame resentment from local Muslim Malays towards the Buddhist-majority Thai state.
"Sadly this is not an extraordinary case... we have handled similar cases before," said Mr Pornpen Khongkachonkiet of Amnesty International Thailand.
"But in the end you never see any punishment for the officials."
Muslims in the region feel "nothing has changed since Tak Bai" she added, referencing the deaths in 2004 of scores of Muslim protesters detained by the authorities which remains a clarion call for rebellion to this day.
Rebels want autonomy for the culturally distinct and Muslim-majority southern-most provinces, which were colonised by Thailand more than a century ago.
But peace talks have floundered and the rebels may now be forcing the issue with widened violence.
Coordinated bombings in August in southern Thailand towns popular with tourists carried the hallmarks of the 'deep south' insurgents.
All the suspects named so far by police for those attacks hail from the region.
The bombings left four dead and sent a shudder through Thailand's key tourist industry.
Thai officials deny human rights abuses are systemic and say they do everything in their power to avoid harming civilians.
"When there has been a mistake, we cannot deny responsibility... but a court will decide whether authorities are guilty of rights violations," Colonel Pramote Prom-In, spokesman for the southern army, told AFP.
The commanders who ordered the Ban To Chut raid have been transferred, he added.