CHIANGRAI TIMES – Michael Karas, now 55, was taken from a B.C. prison and flown out of Canada on Sept. 7 with no public acknowledgment in this country, the suspect’s arrival in the Thai city of Pattaya on Sept. 9 was a major media event. Newspaper and television reporters thronged the police precinct where the handcuffed Karas was publicly paraded by Thai officers as an escaped killer finally forced to face justice.
It was a moment certain to be welcomed by the long-suffering family of the victim — 27-year-old Suwannee Ratanaprakorn — but likely to trouble Canadian opponents of the death penalty, given Karas’s high-profile arrest and “perp-walk” treatment upon his return to Thailand.
That’s because Karas’s lengthy legal battle in Canada to avoid extradition had focused on the Thai government’s long-standing unwillingness to give Canada a clear, ironclad guarantee that he would not face execution if found guilty of the crime, an assurance that is routinely required by Canada (which abolished capital punishment in 1976) before citizens of this or any other country are sent abroad on charges that could result in the death penalty.
A senior official with the Canadian government told Postmedia News on Monday that Canada has, in fact, received a “diplomatic note” from the Thai government indicating that even if Karas is sentenced to death in the Ratanaprakorn killing, that sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment.
The high-level source added that Canada considers the diplomatic pledge “binding” and equivalent to no-execution guarantees provided in the past by U.S. justice officials before the extradition of murder suspects from Canada to face trials in American death-penalty states.
Karas’s Vancouver lawyer, Peter Edelmann, said Monday he is aware of the no-execution promise made by Thai officials and that he is “hopeful” his client will not receive a death sentence in the South Asian country, which has been rocked by political instability in recent years following a 2006 military coup.
Karas’s former lawyer, Glen Orris, once said that protecting the accused Canadian from the death penalty — even with a no-execution promise from Thai officials — could prove to be a “crap shoot” once he’s returned to Thailand should authorities there decide to “make an example of Mr. Karas for whatever reason.”
That view was echoed Monday by Edelmann, who expressed concern that Thailand’s monarchical system of government could put the Canadian at risk of execution, despite the diplomatic assurances given to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
“One of the main differences is that we’re dealing with a monarchy, and the assurances aren’t coming from the king,” Edelmann told Postmedia News. “So ultimately, that’s the complication. We’re dealing with a monarchy with a very active monarch, which is somewhat different than other jurisdictions that we tend to deal with.”
Edelmann noted, however, that it was Karas’s decision to stop battling the extradition order in Canadian courts.
It’s clear from the extensive news coverage in the Thailand earlier this month that the September 1996 death and “chopping up” of Ratanaprakorn, as the Pattaya Mail put it, has not been forgotten. Key to the case against Karas is witness testimony that he had been arguing loudly with his partner in the hotel where they were staying on the night of her death, and then was seen making several taxi trips from the hotel with a large suitcase alleged to have contained parts of Ratanaprakorn’s body.
Her remains were recovered in a swamp on the outskirts of the Pattaya within days of her death. By then, Karas had returned to Canada.
He was arrested initially in B.C. for parole violations in connection with a previous criminal conviction in Canada.
Karas has been held in custody in this country ever since — despite occasional bids for bail — because of the ongoing extradition procedure and a subsequent conviction in a cold-case bank robbery dating from before 1996.
After Canada received the request from Thailand to send Karas back to Pattaya to face a charge of murdering Ratanaprakorn, the suspect began a court battle to avoid extradition that has stretched well beyond a decade — a delay that has frustrated Thai prosecutors and angered the dead woman’s relatives.
And at the centre of the fight has been the question of whether Karas could expect — as typically required by the Canadian government — to avoid execution in Thailand, even if convicted of murdering his girlfriend.
Karas and his legal team registered some court victories during the extradition saga, principally because of the possibility that he could be put to death in Thailand if found guilty of murder.
Thai prosecutors stated in 2007 that the country’s laws prevented Bangkok from assuring Canada or any other country that the death penalty would be taken off the table in a capital murder case.
“We cannot guarantee against the death penalty,” Piyaphant Udomsilpa, head of Thailand’s international affairs department, told the Vancouver Province newspaper in a 2007 interview. “That is at the discretion of the (Thai) court,” she said at the time. “We can’t interfere . . . we cannot give that assurance as the executive branch.”
The death penalty has proven to be a complex and controversial file for the Canadian government since the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper were first elected in January 2006.
On several occasions in recent years, the government has sought and received no-execution assurances from the U.S. government before extraditing suspects detained in this country to face murder charges in American death-penalty states. Similar arrangements have recently been negotiated with China to facilitate the prosecution alleged criminals without the option of execution as a punishment.
But the Harper government sparked an uproar in October 2007 when it announced it would no longer be automatically seeking clemency for Canadians facing execution in foreign countries where democracy and the rule of law prevail. That position, prompted by the case of Ronald Smith — a Canadian death-row inmate in Montana — was instantly panned by foreign policy experts as unworkable for diplomats and was later reversed after Smith won a lawsuit filed against the government.
In a 2009 decision in that suit, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that the government had “unlawfully” quashed a long-standing foreign policy objective aimed at preventing Canadians from suffering a punishment in other countries that they would never face in Canada.
While agreeing to restart the diplomatic effort in Montana to seek clemency for Smith, the government later angered opposition critics and human-rights advocates, such as Amnesty International Canada, by releasing a new policy in July 2009 that reserved the right, in certain cases, for the government to avoid lobbying for the life of a Canadian facing execution in another country.
The new protocol detailed the factors that would influence the government’s decision, including the severity of the crime for which the Canadian citizen is convicted, the age and mental fitness of the person facing execution and the fairness of the foreign country’s justice system.
“The Government of Canada will carefully consider every application by a Canadian citizen for clemency intervention on its own merits,” the new, case-by-case protocol stated.