Rights advocates called on Thailand’s junta Tuesday to transfer hundreds of current cases against civilians out of military courts, a day after the regime announced there would be no new military trials of civilians on charges related to national security.
Military courts usually are reserved for military personnel but the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta is known, had expanded their jurisdiction after seizing power in May 2014.
Since then military tribunals have tried upward of 1,800 Thai civilians in more than 1,500 national security cases ranging from royal defamation (Lese-Majeste), to sedition, defying NCPO orders, and illegal arms possession, according to human rights advocacy groups.
“There are 517 unfinished cases and they will continue to be tried by military courts unless the announcement is made retroactive,” Poonsuk Woonsukcharoen of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights told BenarNews on Tuesday.
“All the cases must be transferred to civilian courts.”
‘NCPO seeks leniency where we can’
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who heads the junta, on Monday issued NCPO Order 55/2016, which said that the regime was phasing out new cases in which civilians would be prosecuted in military courts.
“The offenses committed before Sept. 12, will go to military courts and the offenses after Sept. 12 will go to civilian courts. … After this we won’t see civilians going to military court,” NCPO spokesman Col. Piyapong Klinpan told BenarNews by phone on Tuesday.
“The situation of Thailand is calm. The NCPO seeks leniency where we can,” he added.
The junta announced the move a little more than a month after a majority of voters backed a referendum for a controversial draft constitution that, according to critics, would allow the military to influence the outcome of future elections.
Don Pramudwinai, the Thai minister of foreign affairs, told reporters on Tuesday that the decision on trying civilians before military courts was not a ploy designed to ease international pressure on Thailand as Prayuth prepared to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week.
“I heard about the revocation of the extra power for the military courts for months," Don said. “Now, the atmosphere is good and confidence in public security is regained.”
‘No one should be fooled’
The two-year-old practice of trying civilians in military courts for perceived public slights against members of the royal family or for criticizing the Thai military government, among other alleged offenses, has drawn criticism from human rights groups and organizations both at home and abroad.
“Almost 2,000 civilians have faced an unjust process and unfair trials before military tribunals, many of whom were prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” Sam Zarifi, Asia director of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), said in a statement reacting to Thailand’s announcement.
“All pending cases should be transferred to civilian courts and the convictions of all civilians prosecuted in military courts since the 2014 coup should be set aside,” he added.
The Thai move also came a day ahead of the opening of a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, which is reviewing Thailand’s periodic report on the climate for rights in the country.
In mid-August, Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesman for the U.N. body, said it was calling on Thailand “to suspend the use of military courts and military orders in cases involving civilians.”
On Tuesday, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement that described the move by the junta as a “limited step” that appeared “intended to deflect international criticism of Thailand at the United Nations Human Rights Council.”
“No one should be fooled by the Thai junta’s sleight of hand just before the Human Rights Council begins meeting in Geneva,” HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said.
“The decision will spare many Thai civilians the injustice of a military trial, but repressive military rule is still a reality in Thailand.”