Thailand: Still dragging feet on death penalty


Today marks the 16th World Day Against the Death Penalty. Regrettably, it marks the passage of a year in which Thailand suffered a serious setback on the road to abolishing capital punishment.

When 26-year-old Theerasak Longji, a man convicted of premeditated murder, was executed on 18 June this year, Thailand was on the edge of becoming de facto abolitionist, a status granted to countries that have not carried out any executions for 10 consecutive years. The previous executions had been carried out in August 2009, when two men convicted of drug trafficking were killed by lethal injection.

International reactions to Mr. Theerasak’s execution ranged from shock to dismay. Thai public opinion, however, reacted very differently. Activists and NGOs that criticized the resumption of executions and advocated for abolition were the target of vicious attacks on social media. An opinion poll conducted in the days following Mr. Theerasak’s execution, showed that more than 90% of the respondents were in favor of the death penalty for “cruel murderers.”

Public support for capital punishment has consistently been invoked by various Thai governments to justify the retention of the death penalty. The problem is that the methodology of opinion polls and surveys concerning capital punishment in Thailand is often dubious. In many cases, these polls are conducted amid a public outcry in response to particularly gruesome crimes and respondents are not provided sufficient analysis and unbiased information regarding key aspects of the application of the death penalty.

The reality behind Thailand’s lack of progress in ending the death penalty is that the Thai government has dragged its feet about delivering on its repeated promises to work toward abolition. In July 2014, the government promised to work towards abolition, one of many pledges Thailand made as part of its (unsuccessful) campaign to win a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. In May 2016, during the second United Nations-backed Universal Periodic Review of Thailand, the government agreed to take steps towards abolition. The abolition of capital punishment has also been a permanent and unfulfilled goal of the country’s National Human Rights Plans since 2009.

But what has the government done in practice to make progress towards abolition? The answer is simple: absolutely nothing. In fact, under the ruling military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), authorities have taken steps that have contradicted and undermined the stated commitment to work towards the abolition of the death penalty.

Not only have executions resumed, the number of crimes punishable by death increased as well - from 55 in 2014 to 63 in 2018. The number of prisoners on death row has also reached a four-year high. According to the latest official figures, at the end of April 2018, there were 517 prisoners, 415 men and 102 women, on death row. Of this total, nearly half of the men and 93% of the women had been found guilty of drug-related offenses. In addition, Thailand has continued to abstain in the United Nations General Assembly’s 2014 and 2016 resolutions on the establishment of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Thailand may now be tempted to re-start the countdown towards becoming de facto abolitionist in 2028. This is a failed approach that must be immediately abandoned. If Thailand is serious about working towards abolition, it must urgently take concrete and unambiguous actions.

First, the Thai government should immediately declare an official moratorium on executions and commute all death sentences. Second, it should immediately repeal all legislation that prescribes capital punishment for offenses (such as drug-related offenses) that do not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes,” as a key step towards ending the death penalty for all crimes. Lastly, Thailand should vote in favor of the upcoming UN General Assembly Resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty in December 2018.

These are measures that the Thai government can immediately implement. They would go a long way to show that Thailand has the political will to abolish the death penalty and that it aligns itself with the unstoppable and irreversible global trend towards the elimination of an outdated and barbaric practice.

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