Thailand: A view inside a military court in the “land of smiles”

By Yuval Ginbar, Legal Adviser, Amnesty International

I'm a legal adviser, so not exactly a stranger to courts. I've even been in Thai courts before. But I still find the scene surreal. I was in a Bangkok military court on 7 July 2015, and I'm talking to 14 young students who face the might of Thailand's military justice system.

They are on trial for “seditious" acts like gathering at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre to stand and stare at a clock for 15 minutes. It was a silent protest to mark the first anniversary of the day the Thai army took over on 22 May 2014. The few minutes they managed to hold their protest – before being dispersed – could eventually lead to seven years in prison. They have been charged with violating a ban on political gatherings of more than five people, one of many draconian laws the army has imposed since seizing power.

The military authorities allowed two diplomats and myself to talk to the 14 students before the hearing on extending their detention. I'm a professional human rights activist but I feel very humble in the presence of these 13 men and one woman - I'm tempted to say "boys" and "girl", they look so young. They are all wearing prison uniforms - a cream coloured t-shirt and brown shorts. Their hands are shackled. But they are totally fearless. They protested on 22 May, and others protested again when charges were pressed against five of the original protestors. Sitting in the second row I see "Dave", who was grabbed by plainclothes members of the security forces, dragged by his hands and feet and then kicked and beaten when he fell to the ground. He has a dislocated cornea to show for it.

I'm even more worried about the one woman among them - "Kade", whose violent handling by security forces caused damage to the lower part of her spine. She had to be rushed to hospital from the police station where she had been taken, but it took over an hour for an ambulance to be called. Once Amnesty staff - both from the International Secretariat and the Thai section - had visited the 13 male students last week I was among those who went to visit ”Kade”. But she wasn't to be found at the women's prison - she had been admitted to the prison hospital nearby to undergo a check-up. I could only see her sitting (and smiling) through a window. In the courtroom her smile was broad enough to show through her surgical mask. But she told me she was still in hospital and would probably need surgery - when she went out for a bathroom break, she could hardly walk and had to be supported by two officers.

Still, neither “Kade” nor any of the other students would request bail - they demanded to be released unconditionally.

The students said they were treated well once detained. They were clean and relaxed, and showed no signs of fear. They said their arrest was unlawful, that they were not shown any warrant, that there was violence. They rejected being charged and arrested in the first place, and being tried in a military court. They said the government was trying to silence them. I couldn't help but think that it was doing a very bad job of it.

I looked at these brave, brave young people and was full of admiration. I did what I could to help defend their rights. I told them again - as we'd told them during the prison visits - that Amnesty International considers them prisoners of conscience, that the movement is campaigning worldwide to secure their immediate, unconditional release, and that civilians should never face military courts.

Before the hearing, I also managed to greet their family members. Some of them have been threatened by the authorities and told to ensure their children stay away from politics, a fact which one of the lawyers brought to the court.

The hearing lasted about an hour. Three of the students were allowed to speak, at some length. One of the three judges occasionally stepped in though. For instance, when “Rome” said "we don't pose a threat to society, only to the military government" he was told to stick to the point, which as far the judges were concerned was arguments for release without bail.

The judges then consulted. When they returned, one of them read out their decision: Release without conditions! There is a strict code of conduct in the courtroom, which was the only reason why I didn't jump up and hug everyone.

This is a victory. But the charges weren't dropped. The activists told me the army just wanted things to quieten down in view of the international attention, reflected in the massive media presence outside and around a dozen diplomats inside the courtroom.

The families looked more relieved than the students themselves. All thanked us. I do hope our campaigning helped, but there's a long way to go. The charges must be dropped, as must be the ridiculous laws that allowed the farce to take place at all, such as the prohibition of political gatherings of five people or more.

So a good day in court - I wave “goodbye” to the students, to the families. But we're not going away. We'll continue campaigning until human rights are fully respected and genuine smiles return to the faces of the people of Thailand, “the land of smiles”.