BANGKOK (Reuters) - The mysterious death of an imam in Thai army custody last week has highlighted the plight of Muslim rebel suspects who say they have been tortured while detained for interrogation, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
Torture included ear-slapping, beating with wooden and metal clubs, forced nudity, exposure to cold, electric shocks, strangulation and suffocation with plastic bags, the rights body quoted freed detainees as saying in a statement.
“Muslims in southern Thailand live in fear of the army storming in to take their men away to be tortured,” Brad Adams, Asia director at the New York-based agency, said in the statement.
“The army is fighting an insurgency, but that doesn’t mean soldiers can abuse people. And prosecuting troops for mistreatment could actually help calm the situation and rebuild trust with the Muslim community,” Adams said.
But Army spokesman Colonel Acra Tiproch said only “a small faction” of Muslim detainees had been abused and then only because they “provoked” interrogators as a ploy to demonize the Buddhist state and its troops.
“Some of these suspects are well-educated and they know well how to make junior interrogators lose their patience and start beating them,” he said by telephone from the Malay-speaking zone, a former sultanate annexed by Bangkok a century ago.
Nearly 3,000 people have been killed in four years of a separatist insurgency in the region, which has seen fewer attacks in the past four months.
A university think-tank cataloguing the unrest attributed the decline to the deployment of more troops by new army chief Anupong Paochinda, who took office in October, and almost daily raids on suspected targets.
An emergency law allows the army to hold suspects for 37 days without safeguards against abuses, which makes them “extremely vulnerable to torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killing”, Human Rights Watch said.
It said detainees were at the greatest risk of torture in the first 72 hours, when they are not allowed to see relatives or lawyers.
But Acra said the most critical time to get forensic evidence, such as bomb stains or DNA samples, from suspects was right after they were detained.
Human Rights Watch said the apparent murder of Yapa Koseng -- a 56-year-old Muslim religious leader arrested last week along with five others, including a son -- highlighted the ill-treatment of Muslims in army custody.
Yapa died two days after he was detained and his body was covered with bruises and burn marks, and his ribs were fractured, Human Rights Watch quoted relatives as saying. Acra said preliminary investigation found Yapa, wanted for alleged involvement in bomb attacks, was beaten up by soldiers whose friends were killed in one of the attacks.
At least four soldiers, including a lieutenant colonel, had been transferred out of the region and were facing investigation, he said.
“We will ensure justice is served in this case,” Acra said.