Rights activists and groups are welcoming a Thai government decision to drop legal cases against three rights activists who authored a report last year accusing Thai security forces of abuse and torture in restive southern Thai provinces.
In early 2016, rights lawyers Somchai Homlaor, Pornpen Khongkachonkie, and Anchana Heemmina, published a report citing 54 cases of alleged torture and mistreatment of prisoners in military custody.
Three majority Muslim Malay provinces have been the center of a 12-year insurgency that has claimed more than 6,000 lives with little progress in efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement.
Following the report's public release, Thai Internal Security Operations Command officials filed a criminal complaint against the activists, accusing them of defamation and breaches of the Computer Crimes Act.They faced prison sentences of up to five years and fines of $2,800.
The decision to drop the charges Tuesday followed negotiations and agreement by the activists to present future evidence to the ISOC before releasing any report.
Angkhana Neelapaichit, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, said once any allegations are raised, the ISOC should take steps to investigate.
"For myself, the National Human Rights Commission [and] my mandate covering human rights defenders [I] seriously don't agree the government should try to threaten the human rights defenders," Angkhana told VOA.
"If ISOC [does] not agree with the report they can investigate themselves and say to the public, but for the human rights defenders the government has to respect the work of the human rights defenders," she said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Wednesday the decision "should be the first step toward ending government intimidation, censorship, and retaliation against human rights defenders in Thailand".
Brad Adams, HRW Asia director, said the decision would be "quickly forgotten if the military continues to interfere with rights monitoring in Thailand's southern border provinces".
Defamation laws used against activists
Amnesty International's deputy director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Josef Benedict, also welcomed the decision.
But Benedict said the case was emblematic of how criminal defamation provisions and other repressive laws have been used to target activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and other members of Thailand's civil society "as part of a systematic crackdown on government critics".
Thai rights lawyer, Sirikan Charoensiri, who is defending anti-government protesters, has faced harassment by authorities.Sirikan is facing a possible 15-year prison sentence on charges of treason and violating a ban on "political assembly" of five or more persons.
U.N. Human Rights Office representative Laurent Meillan added his support, saying the government should be encouraged "to take additional steps to strengthen measures to protect activists carrying out human rights reporting and monitoring".
Thai government sources told VOA the decision by the military to drop the charges was based on an agreement of Internal Security Operations staff to consult with the rights activists over alleged breaches of rights in the southern border provinces.
Somchai Homalor, who was unavailable for comment for VOA, told local media he had agreed to submit future reports to "verify the facts before releasing details to the public and to work more closely with the security officials".
An ISOC spokesman, Shinawat Maendech, said the agreement was "not an attempt to censor such reports, but only put in place a mechanism to probe such cases so the wrongdoers can be brought to justice and the victims are compensated".
Signs of progress
In a further sign of progress, the Thai Government last year announced it was supporting a legislative bill targeting cases of torture and enforced disappearances.According to the United Nations, since 1980 it has recorded 82 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand.
This week the U.S. State Department, in its annual assessment of global rights, raised its concerns over alleged abuses by government security forces in southern Thailand.Other issues included arbitrary arrests and detention, poor prison conditions, and insufficient protection for vulnerable populations.
In a separate report, U.S. based rights monitor, Fortify Rights, called on the Thai government to make "concrete and genuine commitments" addressing rights violations before an upcoming U.N. Human Rights Committee review of Thailand's compliance to U.N. rights obligations.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee will assess Thailand's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights next week in Geneva.