BANGKOK, THAILAND - People in Thailand have faced increased repression of their rights and incidents of torture in recent years, human rights groups and activists say.
The Southeast Asian country saw widespread demonstrations erupt in 2020, with protesters criticizing the powers of the monarchy and leadership of the Thai government.
Calls for reforms saw thousands take to the streets in demonstrations that sometimes led to violence between protesters and riot police in the past two years.
Many activist leaders have faced charges including alleged defamation of the monarchy. Thailand's 'Article 112,' or the lese majeste law, criminalizes criticism of the monarchy. The charge carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison per conviction.
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based non-profit organization, released its World Report 2022, saying Thailand's government has cracked down on the youth-led democracy movement and that human rights defenders have been at risk.
The HRW report added that Thailand's respect for human rights has gone from "bad to worse" amid the tensions throughout the year.
Only two months ago, youth protesters alleged they were tortured while in police custody following angry demonstrations in Bangkok's Din Daeng district.
In a report published in November by Al Jazeera, pro-democracy activist Attasith Nussa described how he was tortured while detained after he attended an October protest over the mysterious killing of a 15-year activist during an earlier demonstration. Another teenager also alleged he too was tortured, saying he was burned and beaten.
The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a group providing legal assistance to individuals who had been victims of human rights violations, also told VOA via email that they have found "many cases" at the Din Daeng police station where lawyers were not immediately allowed to provide legal aid while detainees were in interrogation.
Thai army soldiers arrive and secure Din Daeng in Bangkok on May 21, 2010 after being held by the anti-government protesters for days.
Police spokesman Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen acknowledged to VOA that the authorities have received complaints of alleged police torture in the past but questioned the legitimacy of the claims.
"If you were to assess the whole situation, anyone can bring a torture claim against the police after they get detained by authorities. Once you have been detained, police have you [put] forward behind bars. Any torture can happen along the way, not just the police," he said.
"[Activists] can say anything they want to," he told VOA in November.
But Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist for Khaosod English, told VOA there has been evidence of torture towards activists for some time.
"It exists as far as we know. The authorities have always denied [it]. We have some evidence that torture is not something unheard of."
The journalist posted a video on Twitter in February that showed authorities repeatedly kicking one protester while he was on the ground.
"If they could do that in the open, there is no question what they are capable of," he added.
Pitch Pongsawat, an associate professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said there were claims of torture from activists following a military coup in 2014.
"There are so many issues within this torture. Torturing the criminal in prison is always part of the story of police practices in Thailand. Since 2014, a series of students, some of them got arrested and harassed. We heard more harassment more than torture," he said.
The TLHR sent VOA a report that states at least 18 people complained of torture following the coup.
In a shocking revelation in August, a leaked video went viral of a Thai drug suspect being suffocated while in police custody. The alleged killing by authorities in Thailand's Nakhon Sawan province had led to four men being held in custody, including Colonel Thitisant Uthanaphon, nicknamed "Ferrari Joe" because of his extravagant sports car collection. Four more officers are reportedly on the run.
The same month, further controversy unfolded during a street demonstration in Bangkok, as videos surfaced online of police officers firing rubber bullets at close range toward pro-democracy protesters, sparking outrage online.
September saw 13 civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, sign a letter sent to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-cha, voicing concerns over the rights of peaceful assembly.
But with so many claims of mistreatment over the years, change may be near. Some of Thailand's legislators have long sought an anti-torture law to be implemented and on October 5, Thailand's House committee on law met to appoint a chair of a panel that would assign lawmakers to work on the bill.
But Chonthicha Kate Jangrew, a prominent pro-democracy activist and founder of the New Democracy Movement group, (NDM), is facing charges under Thailand's lese majeste law. She maintains acts of torture are still taking place during protests.
This photo taken on Nov. 17, 2020 shows pro-democracy and human rights activist Chonticha Kate Jangrew, second from right, a co-founder and chief negotiator of the Democracy Restoration Group, during a protest rally in Bangkok.
"If you look at the torture, the violence by the police, most the time it happened on the street during the protest. One of the biggest problems on the street is that the police claim this is not torture, they say they just do their work and keep the peaceful order," Chonthicha told VOA last year.
But Kan Sangtong, an observer at iLAW, a human rights group, told VOA he has never seen torture by authorities during anti-government demonstrations.
"I never see police torture with my own eyes. Sometimes, they use force to arrest and many times they use more than force, but they are very careful because the media watch them."
Police spokesman Colonel Kissana added the police force is committed to following domestic and international law.
"We have made several announcements and several warnings before we perform enforcements. We got to step back, if you cross this line, we will begin our enforcement procedure. We make sure our procedures follow the basic four principles, legality, accountability, proportionality and necessity," he said.
Thai police are also facing pressure from the country's media, with one reporter taking legal action against authorities after being hit by a rubber bullet last July.
Thanapong Kengpaiboon, a journalist for Thai-based news site Plus Seven, alleged that this was a deliberate act.
"I think [the police] must have more responsibility when doing their duties, and they have to protect the freedom of the press," he said.