Local and international human rights groups are calling on the Thailand military to withdraw its defamation charges against three human rights activists who published a report on torture and ill-treatment by soldiers.

The report, published in February, details 54 cases of alleged army mistreatment of detainees in southern Thailand during 2014 and 2015. The activists involved are: Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Anchana Heemmina and Somchai Homlaor.

A month before it was released, the report was sent to Lieutenant Gen Wiwat Pathompak for review. The military dismissed the findings and questioned the motivations behind the report.

On May 17, the army submitted a police report in Yala Province, accusing the human rights defenders of criminal defamation and publicizing false information online.

On June 13, more than 60 civil society organizations, including Amnesty International and Civil Rights Defenders, issued a statement saying they are “gravely concerned” about the legal action the army has taken. The groups said that even though the human rights advocates have tried their best to engage the authorities on the evidence included in the report, the army still attempts to block all the complaints against it. They say this approach is unreasonable and arbitrary.

On June 9, a military spokesperson said the army's launched the criminal defamation lawsuit against the advocates to protect its image and integrity, the Bangkok Post reports.

"You can't say they were tortured. Some of them may have sustained scratches or bruises while trying to escape arrest or raids," the spokesperson said.

The activists face up to five years imprisonment and/or a 100,000-baht fine (US$2,840) if convicted.

Mounting criticism

International human rights organizations have criticized the Thai army, which controls the country.

Audrey Gaughran, director of global issues at Amnesty International, says that “Instead of using broad and vague laws to target human rights defenders, the Thai authorities should be following up on the reports of alleged torture and other ill-treatment, with a view to holding those responsible accountable.”

Gaughran adds that the charges signify “an escalation of the Thai authorities’ assault” on freedom of speech.

Meanwhile Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, observed that “The Thai military is targeting human rights activists for reporting grave abuses and standing up for victims. The government should order these criminal complaints withdrawn and do what it should have done in the first place: seriously investigate the report’s allegations of torture.”

In an editorial titled “Misuse of the Courts,” the Bangkok Post said the army was abusive and that it was attempting to “force its will upon critics.” Even if the army wins the case, it said, it will eventually “lose” because it is breaching free speech and intimidating critics.