Thailand lifts emergency rule in three provinces

BANGKOK, July 20, 2010 (AFP) - Thailand said Tuesday that it was lifting a state of emergency in three northern provinces but not in Bangkok, two months after the end of anti-government protests in the capital that turned deadly.

The emergency law, which bans public gatherings of more than five people and gives security forces the right to detain suspects for 30 days without charge, will remain in place in 16 other provinces.

Earlier this month Thailand extended the emergency powers across about one quarter of the country by three months, prompting concern among rights groups and key allies including the United States.

The cabinet decided Tuesday to revoke the state of emergency in Lampang, Roi Et and Sakon Nakhon provinces, in addition to five areas where the decree was recently lifted, said deputy government spokesman Supachai Jaismut.

"There are no political movements in those three provinces and local officials are confident that they can handle the situation," he said.

In the 16 other provinces, security officials report continued political activities such as using community radio to incite unrest, as well as fears of sabotage and assassination attempts on important people, he added.

Two months of mass rallies by the Red Shirts, who were seeking immediate elections, sparked outbreaks of violence that left 90 people dead, mostly civilians, and nearly 1,900 injured, ending in a bloody army crackdown in May.

Critics say the government may be fanning the crisis as it clamps down and censors the protest movement -- which broadly supports fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra -- rather than addressing its grievances.

A visiting senior US envoy last week called for the state of emergency to be lifted "as soon as possible".

William Burns, the State Department's number three, said that to retain these powers indefinitely was "not healthy for a democratic system".

The authorities have used the powers to arrest hundreds of suspects -- including most of the top leaders of the "Red Shirt" protest movement -- and shut down anti-government TV channels, radio stations and websites.

New York-based group Human Rights Watch said earlier this month the government was "systematically using" the emergency decree to hold suspects without charge for up to 30 days in unofficial places of detention.

Many detainees have been held at military camps but their exact numbers and whereabouts are unknown to their families, it said.

According to Human Rights Watch, putting detainees in the hands of security personnel who often lack training and experience in civilian law enforcement increases the risk of serious abuses.

The government has rejected calls from the opposition for the decree to be lifted in Bangkok for a parliamentary by-election in the capital on July 25 in which a Red Shirt leader detained on terrorism charges is running.

A separate state of emergency has been in place since 2005 in three Muslim-majority southern provinces where a separatist insurgency has left more than 4,100 people dead in six years, with no end in sight to the violence.

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