- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

BANGKOK — Death sentences meted out to 38 drug dealers in Thailand have raised howls from human rights groups, but no word of protest from the European Union and Western European countries, which are usually quick to denounce executions in the United States.
"It does seem a bit odd, considering the unprecedented numbers," said a foreign envoy who requested anonymity. "If this had happened in America, there would be alarm bells going off in Rome, in Paris and in Bonn."
The first group of traffickers was sentenced July 25 in five separate cases involving nearly 2 million methamphetamine pills and some 20 pounds of heroin.
Amnesty International, which opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, denounced Thailand's "assembly line of death sentences."
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rejected the criticism as misguided.
"To call Thailand a barbaric state is to say the same of the United States, which as a developed country still has the death penalty," he told reporters. "If international organizations want to study these cases, they should study how drugs affect Thai society."
Any hope that Mr. Thaksin or the judiciary would back down under international pressure was dismissed on Tuesday when the court condemned to death another 14 drug dealers. Five more death sentences were handed down on Friday.
Opponents of the death penalty argue that it has not been an effective deterrent against drug trafficking. But the government minister in charge of drug suppression, Gen. Thammarak Issarangkura na Auytthaya, disagrees.
"I used to supervise the execution of many drug convicts," he said after the first batch of sentences was announced. "I would be glad to do the same with these people."
Somchai Homla-or, a spokesman for the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, acknowledged that groups opposed to the death penalty are unlikely to prevail.
In large part, that's due to the growing alarm throughout the kingdom over the rising use of methamphetamines, or speed, particularly over the past four years.
Still, human rights workers were hoping for some response by the European Union, which last month sent letters of protest to the governors of Oklahoma and Texas over death sentences in those states.
A spokesman for the EU's regional office in Bangkok acknowledged the lack of reaction over the recent sentences but said the organization's opposition to the death penalty is well known. He referred specific questions to the Belgian Embassy in Bangkok, as Belgium currently holds the rotating presidency of the 15-member EU.
Pierre Vaesen, Belgium's ambassador to Thailand, declined a request for an interview, saying through his personal secretary that he prefers not to give any comment "at this time."
"It does seem a bit out of character," said one European diplomat. "The EU has a very strong position opposing the death penalty, and the last week has been rather extreme. It would seem like an appropriate time to speak out."
The silence on the part of the European critics might be due, in part, to the unyielding line being taken by Mr. Thaksin.The chief judge of the Criminal Court, Sombat Diew-isaret, acknowledged that the sentences are meant to send a stern warning that the court supports the government crackdown. The court hears an average of 40 drug-trafficking cases every day.
Thailand, once reeled with a heroin problem. But it now faces an even more devastating scourge — methamphetamines pouring in from illicit labs across the border in Burma.
King Bhumibol, Thailand's revered monarch who rarely speaks out on political issues, recently told a group of 165 newly appointed judges that he favored stern penalties for drug traffickers. He also revealed that he recently had rejected a petition for a royal pardon from a death-row inmate convicted of trafficking 50,000 speed pills.
Thailand resumed executions in 1996 after a nine-year moratorium. Eight felons, have faced firing squads so far this year. In all, 326 convicts are on death row, the highest number since the corrections department was established.
The United States and Japan are the only developed nations that still impose the death penalty. And while there is vocal domestic opposition to the death penalty in both nations, public opinion surveys indicate that majorities support the laws.

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