BANGKOK, Nov 25 (Reuters) Human rights groups called on Thailand's army-appointed government today to prosecute those involved in the deaths of nearly 80 Muslim protesters in military custody in the restive far south two years ago.
Activists also urged Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who has promised peaceful means to end three years of separatist unrest in which 1,700 people have died, to drop charges against the 58 Muslims involved in the protest at the town of Tak Bai.
''A key component of rebuilding confidence in the southern border provinces is a demonstrable committment to holding abusive officials accountable,'' London-based Amnesty Inernational and New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a joint statement.
Police and soldiers shot dead seven Muslims protesters to disperse a rally in front of the police station in Tak Bai, near the Malaysian border, on October 25, 2004.
Another 78 were crushed or suffocated to death after they were stacked ''like logs'', in the words of one survivor, in the back of army trucks and transported to a nearby army camp.
A government-appointed probe found the methods used to disperse the demonstration were inappropriate but top army officers in charge of the operation were not punished.
The southern army commander was moved back to Bangkok later, but promoted to general from lieutenant general.
Public order charges remain against the 58 arrested Muslims, who were released on bail as their trial has proceeded at a snail's pace.
The Working Group on Justice for Peace, made up of Muslim legal activists, urged the government to drop the charges against the protesters, mostly Malay-speaking villagers who do not understand the Thai used in the trial.
''The Surayud government says it is pushing for national reconciliation, trying to listen to people and using peace to resolve the violence, but these things won't happen if government officials don't lend a hand,'' the group said in a statement.
Buddhist Thailand's three southernmost provinces, where 80 percent of the population are Muslim and Malay, was an independent sultanate until annexed by Bangkok a century ago.
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