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Southern security detainees and the stories they’ll never forget

By Pornpen Khongkachonkiet
The Nation
Published on September 26, 2008

“Bae Aea”, not his real name, is one of 40 detainees being held for offences against national security in Songkhla Central Prison. On our visit to the detention centre, he recounted his experiences since his arrest. First there was the initial confinement at a Pattani police station where he went through various forms of torture. Besides the normal punching and kicking, his captors also used electric shocks. He recalled grasping for breath as authorities took their sweet time removing the black plastic bag that they had put on his head moments earlier.

It was clear why the black bag was used. Perhaps the thought of looking into a victim’s eyes as he gasps for his last breath is too much any human being, even a Thai security official.

After a few days at the station, Bae Aea was sent to the Army-run Ingkhayuth Camp where the wounds on his body were left to heal on their own. No medical assistance was provided.

He recounted the nights and days spent in a cold narrow humid room, with no light and no water. There was no proper place to pray. Sleep deprivation became an instrument of his captors, who never failed to wake him up sometime between 1am-2am for interrogation.

A week had gone by at this Army hellhole before Bae Aea’s family was informed. They immediately visited him. He was charged with offences related to violating national security.

Even today, he has difficulty breathing, and the sound of a door slamming shut with a loud bang brings his interrogation to mind.

He said the experience was “Tah lu poh”, which means “never to be forgotten” in the local Malay dialect.

Bae Aea was in one of the first batches of suspects to be taken in when security forces carried out their counter-insurgency operations in 2004, which have since come under severe criticism by rights and civic groups.

Today, the operations continue in some form or another, and allegations concerning the torture of suspects persist.

As of this month, there are 423 “security detainees” held on various charges related to national security. Most of them are still sitting in their jail cells waiting for the first hearings of their trials. Bae Aea was arrested on September 7, 2004, and his legal proceedings have yet to come to an end.

He has been charged with the attempted murders of a police officer and a civilian, as well as for being a member of a “secret association”.

Most security detainees are either denied access to lawyers, despite the law requiring otherwise, or do not know how to seek legal assistance.

It is virtually impossible to secure bail; locking up the suspects is part of a preventive strategy on the part of authorities.

Too often, these men are paraded in front of television cameras by authorities as part of a public-relations effort to show that they are winning this war against the alleged “criminals”, “insurgents”, or whatever names and labels come to mind. Because of such tactics, as well as the authorities’ disregard for due process, many detainees have lost faith in the country’s justice system or have gone on the run because they are convinced that they won’t get a fair trial.

Their families, on the other hand, undergo a different set of hardships. Most of the detainees have large families with several young children. This characteristic is common among Malays in the southernmost provinces. And with the breadwinner of the family behind bars, the burden of earning an income inevitably falls on the wife. Prison visits can also be very costly, up to Bt500 per trip, depending on how many people are involved and how far away from the facility the family lives.

The psychological impact that the arrests and violence have on children is quite serious. While visiting a family of a detainee in a remote village in Yala, the seven-year-old child of the prisoner on seeing us turned violent and started shouting, “Don’t take my mother away, my father is already not here”.

The mother said that the child has been sleeping with a toy gun ever since his father was arrested. It was as if he were trying to protect his remaining family.

We learned that many other children have become unnaturally quiet and have withdrawn into a shell. Many children have had to leave school once they complete the free schooling provided by the state since their families don’t have the resources to pay the fees required to continue with their education.

We also got to know that families face exclusion in their villages once a family member gets arrested on suspicion of being an insurgent. Other people in the village are afraid of associating with such families, as they fear that they may also be suspected of being guilty by association.

These issues become all the more serious when one considers the fact that many people who are arrested are actually innocent.

The latest statistics released from the Police Forward Command in Yala shows that between 2004 and August 2008, the Court handed down verdicts on 125 cases. The accused in 85 (68 per cent) of these cases were found guilty, while in 40 cases (32 per cent) they were acquitted. Police submitted their investigation files to the prosecutor with respect to 4,147 cases. The prosecutor decided to go forward with charges in only 325 cases, less than 10 percent of those arrested.

In 87 per cent of the cases, the prosecutor decided to close the investigation. An accused person might spend 121 days in detention – seven days under Martial Law, 30 days under the Emergency Decree in police or Army custody and 84 days under the Criminal Procedure Code – before a decision on whether a charge can be imposed on him or not is made. If the charge is imposed, he might have to wait for another year before the first court hearing on his case is held.

In 2007, 40 men were arrested at a mosque in Narathiwat’s Yi-ngor district, and 36 of them were subsequently released after a few weeks of detention. Considering the “never to be forgotten” impact of the detention on the persons and considering that the detainees never receive any help to overcome such trauma, one wonders what kind of emotional support they will be able to provide to their families once they are released from detention.

Consider the statistics. A primary survey of 25 security detainees in Narathiwat prison in June 2008 by the Access to Justice and Legal Assistance Project revealed a total of 59 children who were under 18 years of age.

As of this month, there are 184 security detainees in Narathiwat prison. The state has no scheme or programme to provide any kind of help to the families of the security detainees.

We hear about peace talks with southern insurgents – but a healthy, peaceful society cannot be constructed by traumatised souls. Support and rehabilitation schemes have to be extended not only to victims of violence in the South but also to families of security detainees. 

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