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Thai judge commits suicide over political interference

Rights group highlights the need for urgent reform of Thailand's judiciary to improve its independence

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Updated: March 10, 2020 03:48 AM GMT
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Thai judge commits suicide over political interference

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (center) meets Muslim religious officials during a visit to the Narathiwat Islamic Committee in the southern province of Narathiwat on Jan. 20 to hold a cabinet meeting. (Photo: Madaree Tohlala/AFP)

A senior Thai judge who shot himself in the chest with a pistol inside a courtroom last year in protest at what he said was official interference with the judicial process has killed himself.

Khanakorn Pianchana, 50, shot himself in the chest again at his house in Chiang Mai province on March 7. He died shortly afterwards in hospital.

On Oct. 4 last year, Khanakorn, who had served as a judge at a provincial court in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim province of Yala, grabbed headlines across the country after he shot himself following his reading of a ruling inside a courtroom.

In his ruling the senior judge acquitted five suspected Islamist militants in Thailand’s restive Muslim-majority deep south where a separatist insurgency has claimed thousands of lives over a decade and a half.

The judge argued that he had no choice because the prosecution had presented insufficient evidence to prove the guilt of the men, who stood accused of murdering five people in June 2018.

The men had confessed to the murders but did so under duress during interrogation, Khanakorn argued. 

In a lengthy statement posted on his Facebook page the same day, Khanakorn said other judges had urged him to sentence three of the men to death and two others to prison.

Such interference underlined the integrity of Thailand’s judicial system, he said, adding that he had faced similar meddling at another court in the country’s troubled southernmost region.  

“Return verdicts to judges. Restore justice to the people,” the judge wrote in his public statement.    

Following the incident, Khanakorn was removed from the bench and ended up facing criminal charges.

Rights activists said that the judge’s public protest underlined the fact that Thailand’s judicial system was heavily politicized and often manifestly biased.

The International Commission of Jurists released a statement saying that “the apparent suicide attempt of a judge in southern Thailand highlights the need for urgent reform of the judiciary to improve its independence.”

It added that the proper administration of justice in the region suffered from “problems such as the improper admission of evidence and problematic evidence gathering by security forces countering armed groups.”

Khanakorn’s case, the rights group said, demonstrated “how misuse of emergency decrees in southern Thailand has aggravated the political pressure exerted on judges.”

Critics of the judge countered, however, that his abortive suicide attempt was a publicity stunt and accused him of tarnishing the image of Thailand’s legal system. Officials in turn said Khanakorn had been suffering from stress, which prompted his action. 

Before his suicide on March 7, the judge posted a two-page farewell letter on his Facebook page. It has since been liked and shared by more than 30,000 people.

In the letter Khanakorn said he had been unjustly dismissed from his job and was now facing criminal charges even though he had not committed any crime.    

“Being deprived of a job I love means a loss of my true self,” he wrote. “Let me ask my friends and fellow countrymen: Do you find an evil intention in what I had done, which led to disciplinary and criminal action against me?” 

Khanakorn called for political and judiciary reform in line with democratic principles. He went on to ask people to donate to his widowed wife and his teenage daughter’s education.  

“This incident shows that there are still some Thais with a deep sense of honor regarding the judicial system,” a Thai commenter observed.

“Thailand’s judicial system is rigged with corruption by systematic pressure to follow old-school edicts and favoritism. It’s a system which favors the rich 1 percent and makes a mockery out of justice for all.” 

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