Thai rights activists charged over report on army torture

A Thai soldier stands guard as Muslim schoolchildren participate in the opening parade of a festival in the Rangae district of Thailand's restive southern Narathiwat province on April 16, 2016 (AFP Photo/Madareee Tohlala)

Bangkok (AFP) - Three prominent Thai rights defenders were charged Tuesday with criminal defamation over a rare report describing torture suffered by detainees in the restive south, police said.

Thailand's southern tip is a hotbed of violence, with more than 6,500 people -- mostly civilians -- killed in a 12-year insurgency by Muslim rebels against the Buddhist-majority state.

But the near-daily shootings and bombs make few international headlines, and watchdog groups say rights abuses are frequent in the shadowy region governed for a decade by emergency laws.

Three activists behind the landmark report on torture allegedly carried out by soldiers in the south are now facing jail time after the military charged them with defamation, which carries a two year prison sentence, and violating the computer crimes act, which carries three years.

Rights groups say both broadly-worded laws are routinely used by powerful interests to silence critics.

"All three denied the charges and will submit written testimonies later," Winyou Tiamrat, the police officer handling the case in the southern province of Pattani, said of Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Anchana Heemmina and Somchai Homlaor.

Their report, based on interviews with 54 former detainees, described a host of physical and mental torture tactics allegedly used by soldiers and police.

Beatings, threats at gunpoint, sensory deprivation and partial suffocation were all routine during detention, the report said.

The military, which denied the report's allegations, has in the past admitted rights abuses but prosecutions of soldiers are extremely rare.

The insurgents have also employed brutal tactics including shootings, beheadings and bombings.

Pornpen expressed fears her case would deter others from investigating the heavily-patrolled region and push victims of abuse back into the shadows.

"We are trying hard to create a space for people (in the south) to express their grievances," she told AFP.

Thailand's military junta, which came to power through a coup in 2014, has failed to revive peace talks with the rebels.

Observers say peace is unlikely while a tight security net remains over the region.