A City Numbed: Terror's Aftermath In Volgograd

Eyewitnesses tell of the scenes of horror, while authorities still try to confirm if the second attack in two days was a suicide bombing.

Roof torn off
Roof torn off
Yaroslav Malikh

VOLGOGRAD - Explosion, smoke, screams, confusion. Despair. Near-refusal to believe what has happened that creates a kind of total societal numbness. The second terrorist attack in two days has hit this city, with at least 30 killed in the twin attacks. This comes just two months after another attack, when a woman blew herself up on a bus in Volgograd, killing seven other people.

Monday's explosion ripped through a trolleybus 50 meters before its stop on Kachintsev Street in this city formerly known as Stalingrad. Trolleybus number 15 connects the “Seven Branches” bedroom community with the central part of the city, and it is always packed with people during the morning commute.

The terrorist act happened in a busy area near a market. The explosion was so powerful that the trolleybus literally turned inside out, the roof torn off like a can of food. “My stand shook from the explosion, people started running. I also ran out, but I only made it to the intersection - I started to feel sick. People said that there was a huge bloody mess around the trolleybus,” said Irina Nikitina, who works at the market near the explosion.

Men in uniform

Ruslan, who lives at Number 124 on Kachintsev Street, near where the explosion happened, said he was home when he heard a “very loud boom.”

“I ran out to the street, it was crazy, people were running. I saw the victims, and I wanted to help them but there was someone else there who said he was a doctor and that it was best not to touch the injured, because it could do more damage,” Ruslan said. Another witness, Aleksander Romanov had just parked his car and was crossing the street when the blast occurred. "There were soldiers nearby and they ran to the scene and didn’t let anyone else get close,” he said, noting there's a military office nearby. Romanov said he saw someone in a yellow uniform, “probably the trolleybus driver, but I couldn’t tell if he was alive or not.”

Most of the 27 injured, including an eight-year-old child, were sent to the hospital, with at least nine in critical condition. Eight of the injured have been flown to hospitals in Moscow. Doctors say the victims are suffering from multiple trauma and burns. So far 14 people are confirmed killed from Monday's attack. The death toll stands at 17 for Sunday's bombing at the Volgograd train station.

Immediately after Monday's explosion there were reports on social media of many different explosions around the city, none of which were confirmed. The police was asking citizens not to repeat unconfirmed reports so as to avoid spreading panic. Authorities are still trying to determine whether the bomb was placed in the trolleybus passenger area, or if the attack was carried by a suicide bomber.

A spontaneous candlelight vigil of some 200 people was held Monday night in the center of the city, which included representatives of extreme nationalist groups as well many ordinary citizens. A police spokesman warned that such an event could be a magnet for more violence.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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