Four SMS messages, a disappearance, and the foreclosure of justice
On 23 November 2011, Ampon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years, the longest known sentence to date under the Computer Crimes Act of 2007. His alleged crime? Allegedly sending four SMS messages with allegedly anti-monarchy content to the personal secretary of the former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. As Prachatai has reported, the sentence was delivered via videolink as flooding made it unfeasible for Ampon to be brought to the Criminal Court to hear the sentence. This also means that he did not have the opportunity to embrace his children and grandchildren before beginning his post-conviction life. The evidence presented by the prosecutor is surrounded by a series of problems, such as the fact that Ampon does not know how to send SMS messages and the cell phone was not in his possession during the time in which the messages were sent.
When placed in the context of several other investigations and cases over the past year, the prosecution and conviction of Ampon moves from being singularly devastating to being a mark of a justice system that is completely failing. On the surface, the Thai judiciary seems to function relatively well, if slowly. If one visits the Criminal Court building in Ratchada, procedures seem to be followed, hearings take place, and most of the time, courts are open to observers and journalists. Yet behind the veneer of judicial procedure, injustice has come to flourish. This is evidenced by the kinds of cases accepted by the courts, the laws being used, the convictions being delivered, and the logic of the convictions.
One of these cases is the disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaijit. Somchai was a noted human rights lawyer defending a group of men who had been detained on charges of allegedly threatening national security in January 2004 in Narathiwat province. The men were tortured while in detention, and in additional to defending them against the criminal charges, Somchai also lodged a complaint on their behalf detailing the torture they experienced. He filed the complaint on 11 March 2004, and the next day, on 12 March 2004, he was pulled out of his car by five plainclothes policemen in Bangkok and never seen again. His body has never been recovered. As the Asian Human Rights Commission has noted, the lack of the category of disappearance within Thai law has meant that no one has been held to account for his disappearance. Instead, the five policemen were charged with theft and coercion. Only one policeman was sentenced to a prison term – of two years – for his involvement. While the policeman appealed the conviction, he remained out on bail. Earlier this year, on the basis of a series of evidentiary and other problems, the appeal court overturned the conviction. Even if the conviction had been upheld, the prison term would have only been two years.
Let’s be clear about what is at stake here: a man is sentenced to twenty years for allegedly sending four SMS messages with allegedly anti-monarchy content, yet murderers walk free after being officially absolved by the court? What is the use – to the Thai state -- of imprisoning a 61-year-old man for 20 years? What danger does he pose to society? Why is there no recognition or compassion for Ampon’s struggle with laryngeal cancer? There are no answers to these questions. Yet what has become clear is that those within the Thai judiciary [and their allies outside its formal boundaries] have chosen to use their power in the service of injustice. Otherwise, the people who disappeared Somchai Neelaphaijit would be behind bars, rather than Ampon Tangnoppakul.
Note: I wrote this short essay several hours after receiving the news of Ampon’s sentence via email in Australia. The conviction, the conditions surrounding it, and the length of the sentence are so severe as to be beyond the pale, beyond explanation. What kind of solidarity action by those of us outside the prisons [and those of us outside the country, carrying passports of other countries] might be effective or appropriate at this moment? The usual modes of response, writing letters, disseminating statements, and picketing the Thai Embassy in Canberra, while necessary, also seem inadequate. What action would adequately represent and respond to the injustice encapsulated in this court decision? Perhaps recognition of the inadequacy of any response is precisely what is needed – this makes the injustice in this case starkly visible.
Tyrell Haberkorn is a scholar activist concerned with histories of state violence in Thailand and a research fellow in Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. Her first book, Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence in Northern Thailand, is available from the University of Wisconsin Press and Silkworm Books.