Relatives of a suspected rebel in Thailand’s Deep South are still searching for answers from officials on how he fell into a coma while under military custody and later died, and they have traveled to Bangkok twice to seek the help of lawmakers to investigate the case.
Abdullah Esomuso, 34, was found unconscious at 3 a.m. on July 21 in an interrogation center at Fort Inkayuthaboriharn, an army camp in Pattani province, after being held there for 10 hours, prompting questions about whether military interrogators tortured him. A suspected leader of an insurgent cell had implicated him in a series of attacks by rebels, according to officials.
This week, Abdullah’s cousin, Muhammad Nomud Mamud, accompanied his widow to the Thai capital as she and others from the Deep South visited parliament to ask the House committee on law, justice and human rights to open an investigation.
“We hope to see progress and receive the truth,” he told BenarNews. “We have little hope and belief but it is better than praying at home.”
They are hoping to persuade lawmakers to help put an end to the alleged torture of rebel suspects by military interrogators.
“The case of Abdullah is not the Deep South’s first. There have been many before this,” Muhammad said. “So what we relatives are doing is trying to stop the repetition of these things in Deep South and urge officials who did it to stop and be investigated because people are still disgruntled.”
Nearly 7,000 people have died in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking region on Thailand’s border with Malaysia since the separatist insurgency flared up again 15 years ago.
According to a police officer’s arrest note, Abdullah was in a “healthy condition,” but he was stressed out during his detention and allowed to rest in the center, according to Col. Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for Internal Security Operations Command-4 (ISOC-4), the military command in Thailand’s heavily militarized southern border region.
After being found unconscious, the comatose Abdullah was treated at two smaller hospitals before being transferred to a larger hospital in Songkhla province, where he died on Aug. 25. Hospital officials identified the cause of death as “severe pneumonia and septic shock.”
In late August, Abdul-asib Tadae-ing, who sits on the Committee to Protect Human Rights in the Deep South, said doctors stated that they had found no signs of torture on Abdullah.
“According to the doctors, the cause of death was severe pneumonia and septic shock, which happened after he had suffered from hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy [oxygen deprivation to the brain],” Abdul-asib said in a statement.
“The oxygen deprivation could mean torture such as suffocation with a bag, water boarding as some people claimed, or simply [that] he fainted without receiving CPR. The doctors said torture would show traces such as hemorrhaging in the eyes, swollen gums and a darkened face, which were not found in the case of Abdullah,” he said.
On Wednesday, Surapong Kongchantuk, president of the human rights group Cross-Culture Foundation, accompanied Abdullah’s wife, Sumaiyah Minga, to parliament.
“Oxygen deprivation could have been done without evidence left to find,” Surapong told BenarNews at the parliament. “So we want an investigation to make this point clear to prevent a reoccurrence of torture and death.”
Government promises thorough probe
Shortly after Abdullah died, Pramote said the military assigned the Committee to Protect Human Rights in the Deep South, which is made up of clerics, civilians and officials, to investigate to determine the facts of the case. It also set up a disciplinary committee to investigate officials who could have been responsible.
Around the same time, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha denied allegations of torture and said the government did not allow violence against detainees.
In early September, Abdullah’s family members traveled to Bangkok for the first time in an effort to ask opposition parliamentarians to question the deputy defense minister who promised a thorough investigation.
“The government will take care of justice thoroughly. If any officials did wrong, they will be punished harshly, both disciplinarily and criminally,” Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Chanchai Changmongkol, had told the parliament.
On Friday, Pramote said that a portion of the investigation was complete.
“We set up committees. And the Committee to Protect Human Rights in the Deep South examined the autopsy results and it clearly stated that the incident wasn’t caused by officials,” Pramote told BenarNews.
“The relatives can pursue the case with any legal channels and we won’t prevent their efforts,” he added.
Chanchai told parliament that the government had offered 500,000 baht ($16,130) in compensation to Abudullah’s family, but his relatives turned this down.
“The family said the officials wanted to ceremoniously hand over the money instead of making a bank transfer and they did not give a clear condition, so the family refused it,” Muhammad told BenarNews.
On Oct. 1, the family filed a complaint with police in Pattani.
Police Lt. Col. Chakrit Sangchan, Pattani’s deputy chief, said he started the investigation by interrogating Abdullah’s widow and other plaintiff’s witnesses. Police were still compiling evidence, he said.
Pannika Wanich, the parliamentary committee’s deputy chairwoman and spokeswoman for the opposition Future Forward Party, said the committee would discuss Esomuso’s case.
“Parliament officials could instruct us about who should be summoned, but it will be after next week before we can conduct it after the budget session is finished,” Pannika told reporters on Wednesday.
“What we can do is to invite agencies involved to tell us how they could answer the questions from Abdullah’s family,” she said.
A rights expert, meanwhile, pointed out that the committee has limited power.
“The committee can summon officials to testify, take a look at the arrest note, medical note upon arrest, listen to all sides and make a report,” Angkhana Neelapaijit, a Ramon Magsaysay award laureate and former member of Thailand’s Human Rights Commission, told BenarNews.
“The ISOC must reply in accordance with committee’s executive power. But if officials don’t, the committee can only report that the ISOC refused to respond.”