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NCPO curbs Military Court use

Sep 12. 2016
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Cites calm situation change' rights groups welcome move, but many cases currently in military court to continue.
THE JUNTA’S order to stop civilians being brought before the Military Court was welcomed yesterday but rights groups said it would not significantly reduce worries related to the justice system. 
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as chief of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), yesterday ordered the end of the Military Court’s jurisdiction over lese majeste cases and internal security offences, so such matters will now go back to civilian Courts of Justice.
The junta’s order no 55/2559 cited peace and calm as well as the smooth national referendum on the charter as reasons for relaxing security measures in order to grant full rights to national citizens in accordance with the rule of law, human rights principles and the new charter, which will come into force soon. 
The order says under Article 44 of the Interim Charter, crimes related to security matters that take place from yesterday onward will be prosecuted in regular courts of justice.
The crimes include lese majeste in accordance with sections 107-112 of the Penal Code and offences against internal security under sections 113-118 such as sedition, possession of war weapons and explosive materials. 
The NCPO expanded jurisdiction of the Military Court to try civilians alleged to have committed crimes against the monarchy and national security since May 25, 2014, a few days after the coup toppled the elected Yingluck Shinawatra government. 
More than 1,800 individuals were prosecuted in the Military Court over that 27-month period and trials will continue in that forum as the order yesterday was not retroactive. 
However, NCPO order 55/2559 yesterday retained permission for military officials to do a policing role.
Bringing civilians for prosecution in military courts was widely criticised by the international community and human right defenders.
The UN Human Rights Council in its second Universal Periodic Review in Geneva in May recommended that the government and junta should end the Military Court’s role in hearing cases related to civilians. Military courts were criticised for a lack of independence and rule of law.
But human rights advocates and lawyers said the junta’s order to lessen the military’s overwhelming power might not alleviate fears linked to the justice system, as it did not solve concerns at the grassroots level.
“Courts lie almost at the end of the justice process,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“But what is important is what is between the process. The order still lets military officers be equipped with police power. They can still perform arbitrary searches, arrest and detentions. That’s what we are still concerned about but remain unfixed.”
Sunai thought that the order could pre-empt a ruling on the NCPO’s actions during reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) this month. That forum is where the junta government gives updates on its rights efforts after having been grilled in the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review in May.
Still, Sunai considered the order as a welcome attempt to adjust the power structure of the Military Court. 
“But the junta should also look at root causes and how their so-called law violations are construed, if they are truly honest about enhancing the rights situation as claimed,” he said. 
Yingcheep Atchanont, of the Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), said the group had evaluated the overall political situation and concluded that the shift would not make a significant legal change.
“I think all courts have become influenced,” Yingcheep said. “For instance, there were cases that civil courts did not grant bail to people accused of lese majeste. They also punished people violating the [junta’s] ban on political gatherings [of more than four people].”
He felt that civil courts, despite not being attached to the military, had not done enough to check and balance the junta’s judicial power. “The lifting of the Military Court’s power may sound soothing. But by doing so, the junta also accepted that earlier roles of the court were not respecting the rights of accused people,” he said.
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, there have been 1,546 cases brought to military courts since the junta came to power in 2014 with 1,811 people involved. Around 80 per cent of cases related to “wrongful” possession of arms and were not linked to political disturbances.

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