Monday, October 27, 2014

Crime re-enactments: a violation of suspects' rights?

WHENEVER Thai police arrest suspects linked to high-profile murders in Thailand, their faces appear in media, under full public glare. But is that what the public is really supposed to see?

If suspects are to be treated as innocent till proven guilty, Thai authorities should not display them at press conferences.

Such exposure, after all, is bound to hurt their reputation. And even if a court acquits them later, nobody can really undo the damage.

However, it is normal for Thai police to parade suspects before media cameras. Viewers across the country usually see the suspects' faces and know when they will be brought out to re-enact their alleged crimes. Often, enraged people surround the scene of crime and try to attack the accused.

For example, police arrested two Myanmar workers and charged them with brutally murdering two Britons on Koh Tao recently.

The suspects fast became the subjects of condemnation by many - until information emerged that they may just be scapegoats. When a team from the Lawyers' Council of Thailand visited them last week, the suspects said they were bashed and threatened into confessing to crimes they did not commit.

Also last week, police took a Thai taxi driver and his ex-wife to four spots in Bangkok and Samut Prakan province to re-enact their slaying of an elderly Japanese teacher.

Such practices continue even though various agencies, including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), have complained that by exposing suspects police violate their human rights.

According to the Constitution, suspects or defendants in criminal cases must be presumed and treated as innocent until proven guilty.

In response to such legal stipulations, the National Police Office (NPO) has prescribed guidelines on how to arrange press conferences and give interviews or photos to the media.

The NPO has even cautioned against taking suspects to the supposed crime scene simply to point out that this was the place where the alleged crimes took place.

According to the NPO, the suspects should be taken to the crime scene only when their presence is likely to provide additional information - such as to pinpoint where ill-gotten assets have been hidden.

The NPO, moreover, has strictly barred police from taking suspects aged below 18 years to the crime scene as part of their "confession" because such acts would shame the under-aged and may run against child protection laws.

The NPO has explained that where it is necessary to have suspects re-enact their crimes, police must ensure that re-enactment arrangements are not done in a way that publicly shames suspects. In the event that suspects are underage, their faces must be covered.

Clear-cut guidelines are in place. The problem lies in the implementation.

According to a study, human-rights abuses by police during searches, arrests, and suspects' exposure to the media and public condemnation are not always for personal gain but sometimes done with good intent. Some believe the move will alert the public about risks.

In a bid to stop or at least minimise improper or bad practices, the NHRC and many organisations have spoken up and proposed alternative ways that police should handle their investigations and suspects.

Amnesty Thailand chairman Somchai Homla-or said confessions by suspects before their lawyers and investigators carried enough weight and there was no need for them to stage a re-enactment of crimes.

He also pointed out that press conferences on crime cases should focus on motives, not how the crimes were committed to prevent the risk of copycats.

However, a police colonel once noted that police should not take the flak alone because the media should also exercise judgement in its coverage of these re-enactments.

Indeed, there is no need to seek out where to place the blame. The message is that all those involved must start doing something to stop the violation of suspects' human rights
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