Thai activist’s death in custody reignites calls for justice reform in Thailand


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The death of a 28-year-old Thai activist in pre-trial detention earlier this month has reignited calls for reform in Thailand’s justice system.

Key points:

  • Netiporn “Bung” Sanesangkhom, a member of pro-democracy group Thalu Wang, went on a hunger strike to protest her detention and demand judicial reform.

  • Thai authorities said Sanesangkhom died on May 14 after suffering a cardiac arrest while in custody on lese majeste charges (insulting the monarchy).

  • Advocates have called for the release of all individuals facing unjust detention and for authorities to drop charges against them.

The details:

  • Thailand’s lese majeste law, which prohibits any criticism of the monarchy, carries severe penalties and has been increasingly enforced since the 2014 military coup. While the government claims it’s necessary to protect the monarchy, the law has sparked criticism for its harshness and stifling of free speech.

  • Sanesangkhom, who has joined pro-democracy protests challenging the monarchy’s power since 2020, was arrested on Jan. 26. She faced seven criminal cases, including a lese majeste case filed against her for holding up a banner questioning the inconvenience caused by a royal procession in a Bangkok mall in 2022. Another lese majeste charge stems from a similar protest where she questioned the king’s unrestricted use of power.

  • While awaiting trial, she began a 65-day hunger strike to protest her and other dissidents’ detention. Despite declining health, Sanesangkhom’s bail requests were denied. Thailand’s Corrections Department said her death was caused by a “sudden cardiac arrest.” An autopsy is underway to determine the exact cause of death.

  • While in jail, Sanesangkhom penned an open letter saying she realized the injustices in the country while growing up as a judge’s daughter.

“You don’t have to be a judge’s daughter to understand the scale of the failure in the justice system. Their existence is not for the people, they exist shamelessly for the powers and a few groups of people in this country. By simply asking questions and honking a car, you go to jail.”

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  • Sanesangkhom’s death has sparked outrage and renewed calls for justice reform and the release of political prisoners. In a statement, Amnesty International accused Thai authorities of unjustly detaining activists and suppressing peaceful dissent.

“This is a shocking reminder that Thai authorities are harshly denying pro-democracy activists their freedom in an apparent bid to silence the peaceful expression of dissent. Many are currently detained, with their right to temporary release on bail denied. This tragic incident should serve as a wake-up call to Thai authorities to drop charges against and release all human rights defenders and other people who are unjustly detained.”

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