BANGKOK • An inquest has ruled that security forces gunned down four unarmed Muslim men in Thailand's conflict-hit south, a lawyer said yesterday, a rare finding that could pave the way for landmark prosecutions of state officials.
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 abuse 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.
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.
When there has been a mistake, we cannot deny responsibility... but a court will decide whether the authorities are guilty of rights violations.
COLONEL PRAMOTE PROM-IN, a spokesman for the southern army.
Yesterday'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.
Weeks after the killings, Thai police said seven security officers would be charged with murder over the incident. More than a year later, however, no charges have been brought against anyone.
Campaigners hope the ruling will finally see criminal charges brought against the culprits 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 Ms 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, a clarion call for rebellion to this day.
Rebels want autonomy for the culturally distinct and Muslim- majority southernmost 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.
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 the authorities are guilty of rights violations," said Colonel Pramote Prom-In, a spokesman for the southern army.
The commanders who ordered the Ban To Chut raid have been transferred, he added.