Thailand's prison authorities have pledged to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of an inmate after being disciplined by guards for allegedly smuggling drugs, in a case which a human rights group said underscored a "culture of impunity in prisons" in the country.
Pattanachirapong Boonyasema was pronounced dead at Bang Bor Hospital on April 18 after he was brought in with bruises on his body from Samut Prakarn prison, where he had served a two-year sentence on drug-related offenses.
The initial autopsy result by the institute of Forensic Medicine at the police general hospital showed he died from choking and from wounds.
“This is unnatural death,” Narat Sawettanan, the Justice Ministry’s Corrections Department chief, told reporters.
The chief of Sumut Prakan Prison and four other guards have been transferred to inactive positions to facilitate investigations into the death, according to the authorities.
“Anyone found guilty in the case would face discipline and legal action,” Narat said.
According to the Corrections Department, Pattanachirapong was injured when he was put through what the guards at Sumut Prakarn Prison described as “disciplinary punishment” together with other 18 inmates allegedly for smuggling drugs into the prison. He then collapsed.
Pattanachirapong's family has filed a formal complaint with police, saying his death was a result of excessive corporal punishment by prison guards.
“Although the prison chief and guards were transferred to pave the way for the investigation, the family is still not satisfied because they believe there are many people involved,” Chutipong Boonkerd, the family's lawyer, told BenarNews over the phone.
Wanicha Ouyub, Pattanachirapong’s widow, posted pictures on her Facebook page showing severe bruises on her husband's body. She also wrote that she visited her husband on April 17 and that everything was normal and he looked happy as he was about to be released soon.
But, the next day, she was informed that her husband had died of unknown causes.
“I was shocked when I saw his body. My question is how could prison guards do this to prisoners?” Wanicha said on Facebook.
“I will call for justice for my husband till the end," she said, vowing to delay his funeral until the case was investigated.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) slammed the government, particularly the Corrections Department, over the death, saying authorities should "urgently act to end these barbaric practices and the culture of impunity that has meant no punishment for abusive officials.”
“Another prisoner died from a brutal beating yet Thai authorities still fail to address this problem,” said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director.
HRW said that while the Correction Department chief Narat had emphasized that corporal punishment and torture – as well as inhumane and degrading treatment – were strictly forbidden in all prison facilities, he failed to explain why the department still faces a "chronic inability" to end these abuses.
The Corrections Department is responsible for more than 280,000 inmates across Thailand, but seems unable to implement effective safeguards against torture and other human rights violations committed by prison officials and guards, HRW said.
It also said that Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha’s repeated pledges to make torture a criminal offense under Thai law "remain unfulfilled."
Last year, the National Legislative Assembly suspended its consideration of the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Bill, and the government still has not clarified whether the bill will be reintroduced, HRW said.
“The Thai government needs to take action now to show that there will be no place for those who believe they have unchecked powers to abuse prisoners and get away with the crimes,” Adams said. “The government should ensure that Pattanachirapong’s death will be the last case of prison brutality in Thailand.”