Monday, July 18, 2005

BLOOD on the hands

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As two Cambodian sisters hope for a pardon, how deep does Thailand's support for the death penalty run?

RICHARD HERMES

In the visiting area of the Klong Prem women's prison, Cambodians Montha Khuon, 27, and her sister, Srey, a 35-year-old mother of four, stand behind several layers of Perspex and strain to make themselves heard. Everyone shouts here: Family and friends crowd into the booths, leaning close to scratchy speakers. When guards cut the microphones at the end of the strictly enforced, 20-minute visiting period, Montha is left mouthing words in mid-sentence, trying to explain how she and her sister came to be on death row.

While government and police tactics during the "war on drugs" _ including an alleged 2,500 extrajudicial killings and disappearances _ have received much attention in the local and international press over the past few years, the legal administration of the death penalty in Thailand has largely been absent from national discussion. However, when a Thai delegation appears before the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva tomorrow and on Wednesday to answer 26 human-rights queries, several will relate directly to the way that the death penalty has been applied here in hundreds of cases like the Khuons.

During the mid-1990s, Montha Khuon ran a small shop in the market near the Cambodian border in Had Lek, Trat. In interviews conducted during prison visits by the Bangkok Post and Forum-Asia, a regional human-rights organisation based in Bangkok, the Khuon sisters said that in 1997 Montha was approached by a soldier who asked her to contact a drug dealer on his behalf. Montha agreed, she said, because another soldier had run up a 100,000-baht debt at her shop, and she was hoping to recoup some of her losses.

On October 7, 1997, the soldier who had contacted Montha carried five plastic bags full of pills into the bedroom of Srey's house with the help of two men, the sisters say. The men promptly placed the women under arrest.

"I wasn't afraid then, because I knew those bags weren't mine," recalls Srey. "I became very angry as the process went on and I realised the severity of the charge." It was the sisters' first offence. Their 14-year-old brother and Srey's husband, Thai national Bunchu Kesee, were also arrested, but the brother was later released.

A document obtained by Forum-Asia, that draws on court records, says that according to the police, the soldier who approached the Khuon sisters was a "spy", or informant, who organised the drugs bust. Police claim they came to the house as undercover agents and saw Montha, Srey and Bunchu exchange 3 million baht in cash for 100kg of amphetamine pills.

The defendants were sentenced to death on April 3, 2001. Last August they lost their final appeal to the Supreme Court. Their only remaining chance to avoid execution is a royal pardon.

From January 2001 to December 2003, the height of the Thaksin administration's "war on drugs", the number of people convicted of capital crimes tripled to nearly 1,000, according to Amnesty International, a figure also cited in a report by the European Union-funded International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the local Union for Civil Liberty.

Wasant Panich, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, says that the Thaksin administration's fixation on blacklists, quotas and timetables during the "war on drugs" has had a dramatic effect on the way that capital cases were prosecuted and sentences meted out in the last few years.

"Setting targets and deadlines puts pressure on officials," Wasant says. Under normal circumstances the police know that they should wait for enough hard evidence before pressing charges, "but under the 'war on drugs' policy they skipped the waiting part, and this caused a lot of problems". Courts had to dismiss too many hastily brought cases due to a lack of solid evidence, he says. The policy may also have pressured officials into resorting to "irregular" methods, such as planting evidence.

"We got consistent reports of police beatings, and of people signing confessions admitting to trafficking drugs in an attempt to bargain for a lighter sentence," says Siobhan Ni Chulachain, an Irish barrister and one of the authors of the FIDH report, which also raises other concerns, including 24-hour shackling of prisoners, inadequate defences for people who aren't able to afford their own legal representation, and no requirement for the police to notify detainees of their right to a lawyer.

Still, executions in Thailand are surprisingly rare. No one has been put to death since December 2003, when four people _ two men and a woman convicted of drug trafficking and a man convicted of murder _ were given lethal injections two months after the official method of execution was changed from death by shooting.

Royal pardons (commuting a death sentence to life imprisonment) may be granted to individual applicants, or en masse to mark a special occasion, as happened last August on Her Majesty the Queen's 72nd birthday. In the last two years His Majesty the King has pardoned around 52 prisoners.

Thaksin's first "war on drugs" enjoyed widespread support. Nathee Chitsawang, director-general of the Department of Corrections, cites the popularity of the death penalty as one reason for keeping it. He says that while he himself would like to see the day arrive when Thailand does not need the death penalty, "now we still have too much crime. As a society we are not as mature as places like Europe".

A survey conducted in 2000 by the Poll Research Centre of Rajabhat Institute Suan Dusit, found that 91.5 percent of the population believes that Thailand should retain the death penalty.

But five years on, Thai society seems more divided over the issue, says Thammasat law professor Kittisak Prokati. Opinions tend to break down along socio-economic and educational lines. Buddhism still holds significant sway over the culture, and Buddhism prohibits killing of any kind, including by the State.

It's "out of the question", says Phra Phaisan Visalo, a respected monk and noted writer on Buddhism. Phra Phaisan tells a story from the Jataka about a previous life of the Buddha: The young prince had learned from his father that one of the duties of a king was to order executions, so he pretended to be deaf and mute so he wouldn't have to succeed to the throne and take on that responsibility.

"Killing is bad for the killer," Phra Phaisan says. "Hatred and violence can not be eliminated by violence."

That's why His Majesty is so careful about reviewing death-sentence appeals, says Kittisak; he understands that the punishment is irrevocable.

Not all of Phra Phaisan's fellow members of the Sangha agree with his stance. The Matichon newspaper reported that in September 2003, a popular monk from the Northeast, Luang Por Khoon Parisutto, told Thaksin, "The sin from killing a ya ba dealer is the same as from killing one mosquito. Nothing to be afraid of."

In fact, Thais have long had a healthy fear of taking human life in the name of justice. During the Ayutthaya period, criminals arrested for stealing or killing were sent to the victim's family, who decided whether the offender should be put to death or given a chance to redeem himself by becoming a monk. In almost all cases, Kittisak says, the family chose to pardon the criminal. In 1435, methods of execution included cracking open the skull and filling it with red-hot pieces of metal, but by 1934 Prime Minister Phraya Phahol Polphayuhasena proposed to his Cabinet that the death penalty _ carried out by beheading at the time _ be repealed. It wasn't, but the method of execution was declared "clearly inhumane". It was changed to firing squad and an effective moratorium was put in place until 1950. Prior to the change to lethal injection in 2003, the executioner used a screen so that he could aim his sub-machine gun at a target rather than at the blindfolded prisoner, who, typically, was given flowers, joss-sticks and a candle to hold. Before pulling the trigger the executioner would ask for forgiveness from the condemned.

By and large, says Kittisak, the influence of Buddhism on Thai society still means that while many people may want the primal satisfaction of revenge, they maintain a profound ambivalence toward the taking of life. Kittisak believes that contemporary Thais adopt an "it's not my business" approach to the death-penalty issue because to engage in the process would mean shouldering a responsibility they don't want to bear. Like their Ayutthayan ancestors, they don't want to feel as though they have blood on their hands.

A recent proposal by the Department of Corrections to broadcast the lives of death-row inmates up until the time of their execution was dropped when the public voiced its strong disapproval. Last August a 12-year-old girl in West Bengal was one of at least six children across India who died imitating a criminal's widely publicised execution. The girl was trying to show her younger brother how the man had been hanged.

Kittisak disagrees with the notion that the death penalty deters crime. "All of the scientific research shows that it is clear _ that the only reason for the death penalty is revenge.

"The question is, 'Do all Thais really want revenge?"'

There is also the possibility of error. Since 1976, when the US Supreme Court re-instated the death penalty (the same court had declared it unconstitutional in 1972), at least 100 people awaiting execution have been released after evidence emerged proving their innocence _ 12 because of DNA evidence.

In 2003, two days before leaving office, the conservative governor of the state of Illinois, George Ryan _ strongly supportive of the death penalty when he was elected _ cancelled court orders to execute all 167 men and women on death row after a number of investigations by journalists convinced him that the system was flawed.

A number of NGOs, including Amnesty International and the Cambodian rights group Licadho, have petitioned His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej on the Khuon sisters' behalf. King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia has also sent a letter. "The Royal Government of Cambodia has attached great interest to this case," says Cambodian Ambassador Ung Sean. "We don't want to see Cambodians executed. We have no death-penalty law." The envoy says that had the Cambodian embassy been made aware of the Khuon sisters' arrest in 1997, it would have sent officials to help them. Cambodia generally asks the Thai authorities to inform its mission in Bangkok of such arrests.

A treaty currently under consideration by the Cambodian government would allow for extradition between Thailand and Cambodia, but it's been two years since the latter country began considering that document.

In the meantime, the sisters wait. Teary-eyed, Montha says she wants a chance to hold her young son. The psychological stress took such a toll on Srey that she had to be medicated and became sickly and frail.

"Whenever I thought about this whole thing," she recalls, "I would shake from anger." She's feeling a bit better now. To keep herself occupied she sews her own clothes, and says she's trying not to get her hopes up too much.

"I don't mind being in prison for 50 years," she says. "I just don't want to die this way."

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