On the morning of May 30, 2010, Sulaiman Naesa, a 25-year-old alleged insurgent, was found hanging dead in a detention cell at the notorious “reconciliation center” of Inkhayut military camp in Thailand’s Pattani province. As the first reported death in military custody since 2008 in the predominantly Malay Muslim region of southern Thailand, where an insurgency has simmered since 2004, the case has been well-publicized. Recently, Al Jazeera even featured it in a documentary on Thailand’s security forces abuse of Malay Muslims held in detention centers.

There are two contradictory views of the incident. On one hand, there is the military’s claim that Sulaiman committed suicide. On the other, there is the parents and local human rights workers’ counter-claim that signs of torture on Sulaiman’s body suggest that he might have been murdered.

With Thailand’s security forces history of abusing and even killing suspected Malay Muslim insurgents, reports have cast doubt on the military’s claim.

Yet, nearly all reports have been sanitized (in many cases unwittingly) because they have not focused on scientific evidence and the opinions of initially three – and now four — doctors. If human rights workers and journalists had directed attention to this information, audiences would have considered that the alleged signs of torture resulted from the hanging process. Many might have even concluded that this was a fairly clear case of suicide.

At the scene of the incident on the morning of May 30, there were two doctors who performed quasi-autopsies. One of the doctors worked for the military, but the other doctor was brought in from nearby Nongjik hospital at the request of local human rights workers who were brought in to witness the examinations. (Some reports mistakenly claimed that there were only doctors from the police and military on hand.)

Fourteen agencies and individuals, including a forensic expert from the police, officials from the Central Institute of Forensic Science, and Sulaiman’s father, were also in attendance. After the investigations, no one voiced objection to the doctors’ conclusion that Sulaiman committed suicide. Sulaiman’s father was told that a more thorough autopsy could be conducted at the Prince of Songkla University Hospital in Hat Yai. However, he decided against this due to traditional local customs and a lack of trust in the Thai state, according to his interviews with Al Jazeera and other media and human rights organizations.

Soon after May 30, human rights workers based in the far south took the lead in developing the trajectory in which the incident would later be portrayed. Well-intentioned activists questioned the doctors’ conclusion, and even posted a video on youtube about the case. They asserted there were several signs that indicated he did not commit suicide. Some of these signs indicated that Sulaiman had been tortured, including bruising on his lower arms and legs, a cut on the lowest part of his back, blood on his genitals, a wound on his neck, and a brand on his upper back. Sulaiman’s parents later filed a complaint with Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission.

After viewing 55 photographs taken by camp officials in early June, I believed that the human rights workers were utterly blinded by their presumptions of murder and predispositions towards the military. I figured that the signs of torture resulted from the hanging process. That led me to compare literature on hanging incidents with the photographs, the doctors’ reports, and information I acquired through a discussion with a reporter who interviewed Dr. Rojanasunand “Khunying” Porntip. Even though Dr. Porntip was not present at Inkhayut camp on the day of the incident, her forensic team collected evidence and she later viewed the photographs and communicated with the two doctors and her team. Based on the information I collected, it became increasingly clear that the signs of torture claims held no weight, prompting me to discuss the case in an article that appeared in Asia Times Online on July 9.

In late June, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission’s sub-committee on the south held a hearing on the incident in Bangkok. In an interview soon after the hearing, Dr. Porntip told me how she and the two doctors tried to explain to the subcommittee members how the alleged signs of torture resulted from the hanging process.

However, their explanations were seemingly doubted by at least some committee members. The subcommittee requested that the Fourth Army Region conduct a follow-up investigation and report back to a fact-finding commission consisting of committee members and other officials and representatives of civic groups.

As a correspondent for Asia Times Online, I interviewed one subcommittee member two days before this hearing. This individual unambiguously told me: “We know he [Sulaiman] killed himself. The purpose [of the hearing] is to find out why.”

In the follow-up investigation, the Fourth Army Region appointed a doctor from the Prince of Songkla University (PSU) Hospital in Hat Yai to examine the photographs. In separate interviews in October, civilian and military officials showed me the doctor’s report. In one of these interviews, Major General Preecha Plaiyuwong, the military official who led the military’s part of the investigation, emphatically stated to me that the military was finished investigating the case. He also claimed that the report had been forwarded to the fact-finding commission.

I sent e-mails to a member of both the subcommittee and the fact-finding commission, as well as to another leading human rights worker, to find out if they had seen the report. They did not respond.

In late December, I asked another member of the fact-finding commission and the subcommittee the status of the Sulaiman case. This person said that the fact-finding commission was still waiting for the report from the Fourth Army Region officials. When I told this person that I saw the report back in October and was informed then that the report had been sent to the fact-finding commission, this individual admitted to receiving the report but added that it was not clear.

In the report, the PSU doctor emphasized that his opinion was based on limited information because he was only viewing photographs, not the actual body. He also noted that the photographs should have been taken closer up for a more effective examination. (The photographs were taken not by medical experts but by camp officials in front of the people who were in attendance on May 30.) The doctor answered many questions concerning whether the signs of torture resulted from the hanging process. Even though he qualified most of his answers with the use of the word “probably” (р╕Щр╣Ир╕▓р╕Ир╕░), his opinion essentially corroborated the two doctors’ initial investigation.

Given the lack of accountability in southern Thailand in cases of military abuse, many have questioned the doctors’ reports and testimonies. However, one should keep in mind that all post-mortem examinations in cases including Tak Bai in 2004 and Imam Yapa Kaseng in 2008 indicated that security forces were responsible for these deaths. The calls for justice emanating from both local and international non-government organizations and many locals have resulted from the court decisions in these cases, not the medical professionals’ examinations and testimonies.

To be sure, in the Sulaiman case there were some signs on the body that seemingly confused the doctors. And in its documentary, rather than discuss any evidence that indicates Sulaiman died from the hanging process, Al Jazeera focused on these uncertainties. This included the blood on the genitals and black spots on the lower part of body.

The two doctors, Dr. Porntip, and the PSU doctor believed that ants found on the genitals may have caused the bleeding in that area. In my interview with Dr. Porntip, she explained that the other signs of torture resulted from the process of lividity (also known as post-mortem hypostasis), or the effect of gravity on blood after death[1]. She said she was not sure why ants were on the genitals, but she agreed with the two other doctors, who said it was possible that the blood on that region resulted from ant bites.

However, Dr. Porntip and the other doctors might not have considered that the ants could have been located in the genital region because of the emission of semen, which can be clearly seen in the photographs. It is well known that ants eat sugar, and semen often contains high levels of sugar[2]. Moreover, in asphyxiation cases, it is not uncommon for men to orgasm.

Also, based on this lay person’s reading of literature on hanging incidents, there seems to be reason to believe that the bleeding resulted from the same conditions that led to the bleeding elsewhere. In areas of the body where there is even mild pressure against the skin, bleeding can occur[3]. The photographs reveal that in every area where there was bleeding there was also pressure against the skin.

The PSU doctor was asked if the spots on the posterior and legs resulted from electrical shock, but he claimed that they did not. He said that these spots probably developed two to three days before the incident.

However, the doctor’s explanation does not seem to correspond with the literature. It would seem that these spots, which appeared to look like a rash, were petechial hemorrhages[4], and resulted from the hanging process. This especially seems logical given the correlation between lividity and petechiae (which can apparently also be called petechial hemorrhages)[5]. One article even states that petechial hemorrhages occur more often in partial-suspension hangings than full-suspension ones[6].

Because Sulaiman’s feet were touching the floor when he was found, human rights workers and media skeptics initially suspected that the hanging was possibly staged[7]. However, full suspension is not required, as noted in literature and as pointed out by Dr. Porntip at the hearing in late June. Moreover, partial suspension hangings are especially common in suicides in prison.

Also, one website notes that the presence of petechiae hemorrhages in lower portions of the body indicates that the individual was hung when still alive[8].

The evidence indicating that Sulaiman died from the hanging is extremely strong. However, the one member from Thailand’s National Reconciliation Commission’s subcommittee on the south who informed this correspondent that Sulaiman committed suicide has since claimed that it is possible Sulaiman was forced to hang himself.

However, partial hangings are usually presumed to be suicidal in manner[9], while homicidal hangings are not only very rare but also associated with other injuries indicating a struggle prior to the hanging. There were no signs at all of a struggle.

One former detainee interviewed by Al Jazeera stated that Sulaiman told him that he was kneed in the stomach. That is why he did not eat food provided to him by visitors, Al Jazeera surmised. However, the photographs reveal no indications that he was abused in the abdominal area.

To be sure, the absence of evidence that indicates that Sulaiman was tortured does not necessarily mean that he was not physically abused. Several human rights organizations have found that security forces now often use methods that do not reveal any physical signs of abuse.

Human rights workers and many others may believe that Sulaiman was either forced to kill himself or committed suicide because he was so depressed from physical abuse. On the other hand, the military claims that Sulaiman might have taken his life because he was a committed insurgent who did not want to reveal any more information to the authorities and perhaps feared the possibility of a prison sentence. He gave up his own life for the sake of the insurgency’s goals, some officials have said.

Whatever people may believe, Sulaiman was brought to the detention center under the Emergency Decree. Had it not been for the decree, which allows for authorities to keep suspects in detention without charge for up to 30 days, Sulaiman would not have been detained. The authorities detained him on the basis of intelligence they acquired, but they did not have evidence. In custody, the authorities claimed Sulaiman confessed to killing nine people.

For human rights workers and many others, the fact that he died in detention may justify the production of portrayals that lead audiences to believe that Sulaiman may have been murdered. After all, these portrayals have contributed to more public awareness on the issue of state security forces’ human rights abuses in the far south of Thailand, and may have even pushed the Thai government to more strongly consider closing down the highly controversial interrogation and detention center.

But should moral benevolence be a substitute for objective reporting in researching cases of human rights abuse?

[1] Lividity — apparently mistaken by initial skeptics as bruising that resulted from torture — was present in the lower legs, forearms, and hands, as noted by all of the doctors.

[2] For instance, see http://www.medialabinc.net/semen_analysis-keyword.aspx ; http://www.webmd.com/infertility-and-reproduction/guide/semen-analysis

[3] The bleeding would seem to be associated with petechiae, which is associated with lividity. See http://hopkins.portfolio.crushlovely.com/reference/article/platelet-function-disorders. It reads “Petechiae often occur on the lower legs (where gravity exerts increased pressure on blood vessel walls), on the inside of the cheeks (owing to pressure from chewing), or along areas constricted by tight clothing.”

Also see http://www.livestrong.com/article/26795-signs-low-platelet-count/: It reads: “Petechiae can appear as the result of a low platelet count. … When someone’s platelet count is low, even minor cuts and irritation can cause unusual bleeding.”

On the relationship between petechiae and lividity see: http://dmmoyle.com/didig.htm. It reads: “Petechiae may also result from the breakdown of the tissues at the beginning of the process of putrefaction, especially in the areas of lividity.”

Also see: http://forensicpathologyonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=103&Itemid=120. It reads: “If the body has been suspended for sometime, post-mortem hypostasis can be seen in the legs, feet, hands, and forearms, while the upper part of the body will be pale. Petechial hemmorages may be found in the skin of the legs in 2 to 4 hours.”

Also see: http://forensicpathologyonline.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=54&Itemid=116. It reads “If the body has been suspended in the vertical position as in hanging, hypostasis will be most marked in the legs, and hands, and if suspension be prolonged for a few hours, petechial hemmorages are seen in the skin.”

[4] See http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-petechial-hemorrhage.htm. It reads “A petechial hemorrhage is a form of mild hemorrhage which causes distinctive markings known as petechiae. These markings take the form of small red to purple spots which can vary in size and distribution from a few tiny markings to an array which may look like a rash or abrasion.” Also see: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/petechiae/MY01104

[5] See endnote 3 on the relationship between petechiae and lividity

[6] See http://journals.lww.com/amjforensicmedicine/Abstract/publishahead/Petechiae_in_Hanging__A_Retrospective_Study_of.99901.aspx. It reads “Petechiae, one of the classic signs of asphyxia, are thought to be more frequently observed in cases of hanging where part of the body is supporting the victim’s weight, ie, cases of incomplete hanging. … Statistical analysis revealed that the incidence [of petechiae] was higher among incomplete hanging victims compared with cases of complete suspension.”

[7] In cases in which it is suspected that an individual found hanging dead was actually murdered by strangulation, a key indicator to make the distinction is the mark on the neck. Hangings leave an inverted V bruise or cut, while strangulation marks tend to leave a straight line. In the photographs of Sulaiman, the mark on the neck – a cut – is an inverted V shape.

[8] See http://www.enotes.com/forensic-science/petechial-hemorrhage. It reads: “When found in a case of suspect hanging, the presence of petechial hemorrhages strongly suggests the victim was hung when still alive.”

[9] See Apparent Partial Hanging in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Volume 31, No 4., December 2010.