Thai army to drop charges over torture report

The Thai army has dropped defamation charges against Pornpen Khongkachonkiet (C), Anchana Heemmina (R) and Somchai Homlaor (L)

Thailand's army said Tuesday it would drop a defamation case against three human rights workers who alleged that troops tortured suspected insurgents, a rare climbdown by a military notorious for taking critics to court.

The charges against Pornpen Khongkachonkiet -- the chair of Amnesty International Thailand -- Anchana Heemmina and Somchai Homlaor were widely seen as seen as an attack on the reporting of alleged army abuses.

The 2016 report, based on interviews with 54 former detainees, described alleged torture tactics used by soldiers and police across the Muslim-majority south, which has been blistered by a 13-year conflict.

More than 6,800 people -- mostly civilians -- have been killed in the insurgency by Malay Muslim locals against the Thai state, which governs the region with strict emergency laws.

The trio faced up to seven years in jail for defamation and a separate charge filed for publishing the report online.

But on Tuesday the army's southern command spokesman unexpectedly said the charges would be dropped.

"We didn't want the three human rights activists punished," Colonel Pramote Prom-in told reporters after meeting the trio in Bangkok, adding the charges would shortly be withdrawn.

He repeated the army's denial of any torture and said the military has its own "measures to punish" abuses.

Pornpen said she and the other activists stood by their report and welcomed the army's pledge to "re-establish the relationship" with rights workers in the south through a committee to report abuse.

The case was closely watched inside a kingdom where the room for rights campaigners has been severely cramped since a 2014 coup.

The UN's rights office in Southeast Asia applauded the move and urged authorities to drop similar charges against other human rights defenders.

"Today's developments are very positive," said Laurent Meillan, the UN Human Rights Office's acting regional representative, urging Thailand "to take additional steps... to protect activists carrying out human rights reporting and monitoring."

The rebel-hit provinces were colonised by Thailand more than a century ago.

The insurgents are ruthless in their tactics -- targeting troops and police, civilians seen as collaborators with the state and suspected informants.

Last Thursday a family of four -- including an eight-year-old -- was gunned down by suspected rebels, prompting a rally for peace by hundreds of locals from both the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

But the army has also faced repeated accusations of abuse, including extra-judicial killings.

No member of the security forces has been convicted over abuses in the south, although inquests have ruled that Thai authorities have shot dead unarmed suspects.