In Custody

Torture in Thailand’s insurgency-prone south

In southern Thailand, more than 6,500 people have been killed and 12,000 wounded as separatists wage a bloody battle for an autonomous Malay-Muslim state. jason south / fairfax media / getty images
01 October, 2016

Kurosamo Tuwaebuesa lay on her back, widened her eyes and held one hand up, twisted in mid-air. This, she said, is how her husband’s body looked after he died in Thailand’s notorious Inkayuth military camp.

“They said it was a natural death and not from torture,” the 34-year-old mother of three told me in late February, as we sat on a mat in her house in Pattani province. It was nearly three months after soldiers said they found her husband, Abduldayib Dolah, dead in his cell. “But one hand was black, one hand was gnarled and held up in a strange way. His eyes were popped open.”

On 4 December 2015, Dolah became yet another casualty in the insurgency that has plagued Thailand’s southernmost provinces—Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla—for more than a decade. More than 6,500 people have been killed and 12,000 wounded as separatists wage a bloody battle for an autonomous Malay-Muslim state. Bombings are extremely common, and schools, hospitals and pagodas have all been targets. Since 2004, the area—which is ethnically, linguistically and religiously distinct from the rest of Thailand—has been governed by martial law.

In an effort to stamp out the insurgency, the government employs heavy-handed tactics. Today, more than 60,000 soldiers, police and special forces are deployed in the area. People can be held without charge for nearly a month, and torture and forced confessions in custody are commonplace. Many men (for it is almost only men who are imprisoned) leave prison with no charges, but bearing the physical and psychological effects of torture. It is hard to believe that abuse did not play some sort of role in Dolah’s custodial death.

The Muslim Attorney Center, a local legal-aid group, recorded 33 cases of torture in the region last year, though Kaosat Ali-mamah, a paralegal, said the figure represented only a small piece of the full picture. “We learn about them only when the victim comes to us. The number is certainly higher,” she told me.

Just after midnight on 11 November 2015, soldiers surrounded Tuwaebuesa and Dolah’s home in Pattani’s Nong Chik district, and loudly called for Dolah to step outside. According to Tuwaebuesa, they spent two hours ransacking the place, presumably looking for evidence linking Dolah to the separatists. At 3 am, the soldiers took him into custody.

Some hours later, the soldiers returned. One claimed to have lost his wallet and watch, and said they needed to look for it. “I ordered my two children to follow the soldiers,” Tuwaebuesa told me. “I was worried they were going to plant a gun.”

Each day, Tuwaebuesa travelled to Inkayuth military base to visit her husband. She begged him to lift up his shirt and show her his body, but he always refused. “I think my husband didn’t want to let me know what was happening to him because he thought it would cause a crisis for me.”

Day by day, Dolah grew paler and weaker. On the twenty-first day, she recalled, counting on her fingers to double-check, Dolah told her, “I feel tired, and weak. I have no energy. I feel so scared.”

He told her the soldiers had begun to accuse him of involvement in nearly every major security incident that had happened in Yala province. He spoke, Tuwaebuesa said, “like someone who was going to die.”

“Please take care of the children,” she said, remembering his words. “Please take care of yourself.”

Tuwaebuesa’s memories of the weeks leading up to her husband’s death were presented calmly and with extreme precision. When I met her, she had already spent months recounting these facts in what appeared to be a Sisyphean quest for justice. With the help of the Muslim Attorney Council and the Cross Cultural Foundation, or CrCF—another local legal aid group—Tuwaebuesa had filed complaints with the military and the United Nations special rapporteur on torture. These complaints have as of yet led to no meaningful action.

On 4 December 2015, soldiers again appeared at Tuwaebuesa’s house, and told her she should pick up her husband from the military camp.

“I was delighted as all members in my family and my children were looking forward to welcoming him home and to living together again,” she recounted in the complaint filed later that month with the UN.

The soldiers insisted on driving Tuwaebuesa, something that gave her pause but which she brushed away. The whole way, they were nervously chatty, “speaking a lot, speaking as if to soothe me,” Tuwaebuesa told me.

At the camp, there was an interminable amount of waiting and more unsettling small talk from the soldiers. “I thought: the soldiers can say small things, but they can’t say anything about my husband.” A community leader arrived. He was the one to tell her: “Your husband passed away.”

Days earlier, Dolah had been pale and nervous, but he had seemed fine. He was 41 years old, and had no health problems. His death, thought Tuwaebuesa, could not be natural.

After a lengthy battle with the camp authorities, Tuwaebuesa was permitted to see the body. In her official complaints and in her conversation with me, Tuwaebuesa recounted, in detail, each factor that had seemed suspicious. Dolah’s hands were seized up as if subjected to electrocution. He was lying awkwardly on a prayer mat that appeared to have been tugged under him. His head was on the floor, instead of on a pillow lying next to him. He was wearing two shirts, something no one had ever seen him do.

“I and the relatives assumed that he was brought into the room for questioning and was tortured to death. Then, they put on him the shirts and arranged his posture to pretend he had died of a natural cause,” she wrote in the UN complaint.

The soldiers wanted to take the body away for an autopsy. Citing religious reasons, the family refused. But going by surface evidence, an army doctor initially told her he believed it was torture. When the official report came out a week later, however, the death was listed as “natural.” An investigation was opened; the family—angry at the lack of independent evaluation—protested.

In the complaint to the UN, Tuwaebuesa wrote that she “refused to participate in the meeting of the inquiry committee until the UN mechanism is invited to take part in fathoming the truth.”

Eight months on, there is little sign justice will prevail for Tuwaebuesa. The office of the UN special rapporteur on torture did not reply to a request for comment as to whether it is carrying out an investigation, while the government inquest is still inching along. The family, meanwhile, has plans to file a civil lawsuit, according to their lawyers at the CrCF.

“The difficulty about this case is that there is no autopsy, even the doctor could not identify the cause of death,” Nadthasiri Bergman, a lawyer who works with the CrCF, though not directly on this case, told me. “Therefore, it will be impossible to get the verdict stating that the death was from torture. There are many restrictions of introducing evidence to trial, such as witness intimidation, religion practice. The family knows the restriction of this case.”

A report released in February by the CrCF and Pattani Human Rights Organisation said: “From our data collection, it is found that complaints of torture in southern border province have been regularly received since 2004 and such complaints are concentrated in the same place.”

Rights groups such as these have documented strangulation, waterboarding and electric shocks to the scrotum. One former detainee told me he had been tasered until he passed out. Another man recounted being stripped naked and having his face pushed “up and down, over and over,” into a swimming pool.

The government has publicly denied all such claims. After the CrCF torture report came out, Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command released a statement claiming: “all attempts have been made to prevent any act that would become a problem from a human rights perspective.”

On 26 July, three rights workers who had worked on the report were charged with criminal defamation and computer crimes.

At her house, tearing up, Tuwaebuesa told me, “I told my children, now you have no father. We have to live however we can. To my oldest, I said, ‘Now you are the leader of the house and you have to be a good boy.’”

If the 12-year-old in the corner of the room heard this, he did not react.