NARATHIWAT, Thailand (AFP) – – In a tree-shaded prison yard in Thailand’s south, inmates cuddle their children and chat to their wives over plates of halal food, while guards with batons circle the rare gathering.
For most of these detainees awaiting justice on charges relating to the five-year insurgency in the Muslim-majority region, it is the first time in months that they have had physical contact with their families.
Mahpaozi Rusah, 34, clings solemnly to his four-year-old son as the time comes for his loved ones to leave Narathiwat jail, while his wife wipes away tears with her hijab as they say their goodbyes.
“He is really missing his sons,” said the prisoner’s mother Peena Mama, who told AFP he was arrested by authorities in March at his village home some 100 kilometres (60 miles) away, for reasons that remain unclear.
“He would be so happy if he was released soon but he has no clue when it will be,” she added.
There are 202 people detained here on security charges and some may face 18 months or more waiting for their trials to start, according to statistics from Thailand’s Cross Cultural Foundation, a rights group.
It said a total of 548 such suspects are now imprisoned in the troubled provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani and parts of Songkhla, with sometimes devastating effects on their often large families.
The southern region made up an autonomous Malay Muslim sultanate until it was annexed by mainly Buddhist Thailand in 1902, and tensions have simmered ever since.
More than 3,700 people have been killed since the current uprising began in January 2004 and security forces have arrested thousands of Muslims.
“We want to help the detainees and their families to meet each other,” said Patimoh Maneng of the Muslim Attorney Center, which provides free legal aid and organised the prison activity with the foundation and other groups.
Although relatives are allowed to visit the jail regularly, normally they must communicate with the prisoners through iron bars and many struggle to afford the cost of travel.
“The authorities give them no help,” Patimoh said. “People suffer too much, and some families have to collect money for one month just for one visit because they are poor.”
Mother-of-two Shifah Stawfah came to visit her husband who was arrested in February 2008 with 12 other men. Like other visitors, the 29-year-old brought her husband plastic bags packed with treats such as fresh fruit.
“Of course he feels angry because he is detained. He wants to come out and live like normal people,” she said in Yawi, the main dialect spoken in the region.
“I don’t know when the trial will be. We never get any information from the authorities.”
The detainees often struggle to get legal assistance and it is “virtually impossible” for them to secure bail, according to Pornpen Khongkachonkiet of the Cross Cultural Foundation.
“We believe it’s a kind of preventative detention,” she said.
An Amnesty International report earlier this year said that security forces in the south were systematically using torture in their fight against the uprising, leaving at least four detainees dead.
Alleged survivors said the most common techniques included having plastic bags placed over their heads until they nearly suffocated and being kicked or stomped on.
Pornpen said reported torture cases mostly took place in the arrest period — during police interrogations and army custody — rather than in the prisons.
But she added that the court system in the south was failing to provide efficient justice.
For the families who have lost their main breadwinner, it has become a daily strain to make ends meet.
“Of course I have to work harder than before. Before we worked at the rubber plantation together but now I have to do it alone,” said Koreeyah Sama-ae, who brought her two children to visit her husband, arrested almost two years ago.
“The children suffer; their lives are difficult without their dad. I was crying when we said goodbye,” the 30-year-old said.
A Cross Cultural Foundation report published in July said that on top of financial and mental suffering, families also faced exclusion in their own villages because of their suspected links to insurgents.
Youngsters were teased at school for being “children of the bandits”, it said.
The director of Narathiwat’s prison, Boontham Kamlungkue, said that on average 80 percent of detainees were convicted, while the rest would receive 400 baht (12 dollars) for each day they have spent behind bars.
But Pornpen said she doubted whether this compensation was ever given to the acquitted, who can face a total of five years waiting for their names to be cleared by the Supreme Court.
There are also fears that the detentions are fuelling the insurgency itself, as they deepen tensions in communities already wracked by violence and divisions.
“In the way that it’s happening now, it has caused further alienation and that feeds into the radicalisation of the situation,” said Sunai Phasuk, an analyst for Human Rights Watch in Thailand
Detainees’ families suffer in Thai south