Updated: August 14, 2020 09:03 AM GMT
Porlajee 'Billy' Rakchongcharoen in Kaeng Krachan National Park. (Photo: BBC.com)
Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) says it has gathered enough evidence to charge four men with murder over the death of Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a Christian ethnic Karen activist who went missing in 2014.
The investigative body, which operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Justice independently of the Thai police, is seeking to challenge an earlier decision by the Office of the Attorney-General to drop murder charges against four men implicated in the disappearance and death of Porlajee, including Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, the former chief of Kaeng Krachan National Park where the Christian land rights activist went missing.
“After receiving the decision from the prosecutors, we went through all the evidence, including eyewitness accounts, material evidence, forensic evidence, as well as comments from experts,” said Lt. Col. Korawat Panprapakorn, director of the DSI.
“We found that we can’t agree with the prosecutors’ decision.”
Porlajee was a prominent rights activist who had been calling for the rights of Karen people to their ancestral lands to be respected inside forests. He was last seen alive in the national park in Phetchaburi province in central Thailand on April 17, 2014.
He disappeared shortly after he was arrested at a checkpoint by Chaiwat, the national park’s then chief, and three of his men who later said they had detained Porlajee for collecting wild honey illegally in a protected forest reserve.
The four men said they had released Porlajee unharmed and were unsure of his whereabouts. Yet last year investigators discovered that the bone fragments found inside a steel drum sunken in a reservoir of the national park belonged to the missing rights activist.
Chaiwat and the three other men allegedly killed the Karen activist and burned his remains in a steel drum in an effort to dispose of them.
The men allegedly sought to silence Porlajee, who had been speaking out against them over their destruction of Karen villagers’ homes on land which the Christian ethnic minority community considered their ancestral inheritance.
The four park officials were charged last year with seven offenses involving Porlajee’s disappearance, including premeditated murder and concealing his body. However, the Office of the Attorney-General soon dropped all serious charges against the suspects, citing insufficient evidence.
Chaiwat, who is accused by rights activists of masterminding the murder of Porlajee, remains a free man and is currently the director of a government office dedicated to conservation in a northeastern province.
DSI head Korawat says his investigators have found there is enough evidence to reopen the case and charge Chaiwat and the three other men with murder. “We will forward our comments to the attorney-general,” he said.
The investigation into the murder of the ethnic minority activist is seen as a test case for Thailand’s justice system, which has been slammed by rights activists as deeply flawed. The victims of crimes perpetrated by influential people often fail to get justice, observers say.
Prominent rights groups have called on the authorities to bring the murderers of Porlajee to justice. “His death should not go unpunished,” Amnesty International stressed in a statement issued earlier this year.
"Lack of justice for Billy’s disappearance strongly highlights his family’s struggle with a cycle of violations, from forced eviction and destruction of their property in 2010 and 2011; death threats for seeking redress for these violations; his disappearance in 2014; and failure to provide his family with redress,” the rights group said.
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