BANGKOK: Scores of detainees have been tortured by Thai security forces in the country's conflict-strewn south, rights groups said Tuesday, with beatings, suffocation and death
threats among a litany of alleged abuse.
Special security laws govern Thailand's Muslim-majority southernmost provinces, where more than 6,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in a 12-year insurgency against Thai rule.
Under martial law -- which is flanked by an emergency decree -- rebel suspects can be detained for six weeks without charge, according to a report by rights groups to be released Wednesday documenting widespread abuses.
The study, rare research in a dangerous zone cloaked by security forces and insurgents, found 54 cases of physical and mental torture or mistreatment between 2014-15, often at military camps.
Alleged beatings of suspects, threats at gunpoint, sensory deprivation and suffocation were all routine during detention, researchers said.
"What we have documented is the tip of the iceberg," said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, of the Cross Cultural Foundation, one of the research groups.
The situation has worsened since Thailand's 2014 coup put the military in power, she added.
"With no accountability or oversight mechanisms since the coup... interrogation officers have almost a free hand" over detainees, she explained.
The insurgents are seeking greater autonomy from Thailand, which annexed the region more than a century ago, and have employed brutal tactics including indiscriminate shootings, beheadings and bombings.
- 'I couldn't breathe' -
One suspect, Weasohok Doloh, told AFP that he was hauled into custody in May 2015 on suspicion of involvement in a bombing -- an accusation he denies.
He was taken Inkayuth military camp, an interrogation center in Pattani province, where he alleged he was abused over several days.
"At first they just slapped me," the 32-year-old builder said, adding he resisted confessing to links with the rebels.
But the abuse worsened and after a few days he alleged he was stripped naked by three interrogators who also tied his hands.
"Suddenly one (interrogator) pushed me onto to chair and forced a plastic bag over my head. I couldn't breathe... they released the bag when I said I would confess. But I had nothing to confess to, so they did it again," he said.
In total he spent 84 days in custody before prosecutors decided not to press charges.
"Inkayuth military camp is a place where bad things are swept under the carpet," says Anchana Heemina of Duay Jai, a rights group which co-authored the report.
"We have heard stories of suffering from there for 12 years," she added, urging the army to allow lawyers access to suspects from the moment of arrest.
A Muslim man died in custody at Inkayuth in December last year. The army says it was from a heart attack.
A separate report released on last week by the Muslim Attorney's Centre (MAC), a southern-based advocacy group, collected testimony of 75 people who alleged they were the tortured in custody in 2015.
Army spokesman Pramote Prom-In, dismissed the torture allegations contained in both reports as "imaginary."
"Losing their freedom may be torture for them... but we need to enforce the law," he told AFP.
"Detainees are allowed family visits and arrests are made in front of witnesses," he added.
The military has hailed a record drop in violence in recent months as the result of better intelligence-led operations since it took power and the fruit of tentative peace talks with a number of rebel representatives.