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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 25, 2008
US and Thailand: Allies in torture
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Months before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington, the US and Thailand established the Counterterrorism Intelligence Center (CTIC), a secretive unit presciently which joined the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Thai intelligence officials to gather information about regional terror groups.

Now the unit and its associated staff and directors could one day find themselves on trial for war crimes over recent revelations first reported in the Washington Post and later confirmed during a congressional hearing, that the CIA ran a secret interrogation

facility at a Thai military base where at least two terror suspects from Pakistan and Afghanistan were transported and later tortured.

The revelations, made in the context of the CIA's destruction of tapes made of their torture sessions, represent the latest bombshell to explode over the US's prosecution of the so-called "war on terror" and the first to drag in directly a Southeast Asian ally.

Political analysts and diplomats in Thailand suspect that the prison was, and perhaps still is, situated at a military base in the northeastern province of Udon Thani from where the US launched its bombers during the Vietnam War and is currently believed to monitor regional radio communications, including inside China.

Wherever the CIA-run interrogation facilities are situated, the torture of suspects in Thailand apparently represents the latest US violation of the Geneva Conventions and also controversially violates Thai law and sovereignty. The US congressional revelations about the facility also raises hard new questions about the role and possible complicity of Bangkok-based senior US officials, including previous US ambassadors Darryl Johnson and Ralph "Skip" Boyce.

The interrogations captured on the destroyed CIA tapes took place in 2002, during Johnson's term as the top US official in Bangkok; Boyce, recently retired from the foreign service, meanwhile recently admitted to a former Thai legislative aide of having knowledge of the facility but declined to give any details.

US Embassy spokesman Michael Turner told Asia Times Online that as a matter of policy he does not comment on intelligence matters and that the recent revelations about the CIA-run facilities was merely an "old story that has resurfaced".

As one of the US's most trusted regional allies, Thailand was a logical and secure destination for situating the secret interrogation facilities. Although Thailand is conveniently not a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture, it has signed onto the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which broadly protects human rights, including the right to a fair and speedy trial for those charged with crimes.

Although the US ratified the ICCPR in 1992, it has in the intervening years frequently violated the covenant on the twisted and some say spurious legal argument that several of its articles are not "self-executing". With the prosecution of its "war on terror", the US has more recently persuaded several of its regional strategic allies - including Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines - to either ignore or reverse their prior multilateral commitments to rights-protecting international laws and covenants like the ICCPR in exchange for preferential trade and military deals.

Democratic torture
Former prime minister Thaksin Shinwatra's democratically elected government paved the way for the CIA's secret prison's establishment, first by refusing to ratify the previous Democrat Party-led administration's decision to sign onto the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and second by granting a legal exemption and agreement not to extradite any US citizens who violated the Rome statute on Thai soil to an ICC signatory third country.

His government also, apparently on the US's urging, introduced terrorism-related charges into Thai criminal law. In quid pro quo fashion, Washington rewarded Bangkok in 2003 with the bilateral promise to negotiate a free trade agreement and upgraded Thailand to major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, which allows the Thai military to procure, sometimes at friendship prices, sensitive military technologies.

Yet the public revelations about CIA-led torture of terror suspects brought to Thailand cast a harsh new light on that special bilateral relationship and raises even harder questions about Thaksin’s motivations for allowing the US to violate Thai sovereignty. Those questions were first mooted after a CIA-led operation in August 2003 that led to the capture of alleged al-Qaeda operative and Indonesian national Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, on Thai soil.

Hambali was at the time allegedly immediately extradited from Thailand to an undisclosed third country location without proper legal proceedings - despite the fact that he was arrested on Thai immigration rather than terror charges. In the view of human rights lawyers, the lack of due process makes Thai officials complicit in the CIA's controversial rendition policy, where terror suspects have been apprehended around the world and without trial sent to secret detention facilities, where in many cases they have allegedly been tortured during interrogations.

Thailand has been lured into such practices from the highest echelons of the US government. Former US Homeland security director Tom Ridge, during a presentation in 2004 to foreign journalists in Bangkok, praised Thailand for Hambali's apprehension, but when questioned about whether the commando-style arrest represented a violation of Thai sovereignty, he replied that he was not knowledgeable concerning the relevant Thai laws. President George W Bush in a press conference before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Bangkok months after Hambali's arrest referred to Thai special branch counterterrorism chief General Tritos Ranaridhvichai as "my hero" for his role in the sting operation.

Now the bigger security question for Thailand and the wider region concerns what role the US may be covertly playing in Southern Thailand, where an increasingly violent Muslim insurgency and counteractions by Thai security forces have by some estimates resulted in over 2,800 deaths since December 2004. While Washington is far and away the Thai military's largest supplier and closest foreign trainer, both governments have studiously maintained that the US has played no role whatsoever in counterinsurgency operations in the Thai south.

The recent revelations about the CIA's secret prison on Thai soil have cast new doubts on those assertions, however. So too did a Thai government spokesman's assertion last week that, after years of official and US denials of any foreign involvement in what most security analysts view as a local conflict, al-Qaeda had provided finances to southern Thai Muslim insurgents - a claim that if true could be deployed to garner public support for more overt US involvement in combating the insurgents. (Acting prime minister and former army commander Surayud Chulanont later refuted his spokesman's claim.)

'Striking' similarities
Still, some observers argue that the US has already left its mark on the conflict, which pits predominantly Buddhist Thai security forces against ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents. Rights advocates monitoring southern Thailand's conflict note a striking similarity between the torture techniques US agents are known to have used against terror suspects held in both Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba with those now in practice by Thai security forces against suspected Thai Muslim militants.

According to testimonies of former Thai Muslim detainees recorded by US-based rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Thai security officials have recently used torture techniques ranging from sleep deprivation, forced nudity, exposure to extreme temperatures and even the threat to release German Shepherd guard dogs on detainees during interrogations. One Thai Muslim detainee was recently nearly killed after he was left naked in a meat cooler for over 24 hours at a military camp in Pattani province, according to one rights group.

These controversial and often illegal practices are largely being overseen by Thailand's Supreme Command's National Security Center, which is known to have close links with US military officials, according to people familiar with the situation. Despite the public exposure, Thailand's security forces continue to act with impunity while the torture techniques they're known to have used in the recent past continue today, says one of the rights group's researchers.

US and Thai officials will no doubt continue to try to disassociate the CIA's torture prisons with the Thai military's controversial tactics in southern Thailand, including the implementation of what some rights advocates refer to as "US-style" torture techniques. It is telling, they say, that the US has in the main remained silent about their Thai allies' sustained and by now well-documented use of torture while interrogating Muslim militant suspects.

Viewed through a realist lens, that policy posture may be explained by the US's need to maintain cordial ties with Thailand, which until now Washington has used as its regional hub for prosecuting the "war on terror". That would also go to explain why, despite immaterial cuts in bilateral aid and public finger-wagging, the US maintained close bilateral relations and military-to-military ties after the September 2006 military coup which ousted Thaksin's democratically elected government.

But by foisting on its regional allies the worst of the Bush administration's rights abusing excesses - including alleged torture, renditions and running roughshod over international laws - the US's professed claim to promote democracy in the region has never rang more hollow in the wake of the CIA prison revelations. And yet there's considerably more at stake than a mere loss of diplomatic face.

For those who believe that Bush and senior members and foreign envoys of his administration should one day face trial for war crimes for their controversial and many argue illegal prosecution of the US's "war on terror", the CIA's and US Embassy's actions in Thailand should provide yet another disturbing store of evidence for international lawyers and rights advocates to build their case.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor. He may be reached at swcrispin@atimes.com.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Who's who in Thailand's Muslim insurgency (Sep 8, '07)

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