A criminal court in Thailand has dismissed murder charges against four forestry officials in connection with the 2014 disappearance of a prominent land rights activist, citing a lack of evidence in a case that had sparked outrage among civil society organisations.
Rangers arrested Pholachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen in April 2014 in Kaeng Krachan National Park, southwest of Bangkok, but he never showed up at a police station for processing and has not been seen since.
He had been defending the rights of the evicted Karen members of his ethnic community.
In a case closely monitored by human rights groups, Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, the former superintendent of Kaeng Krachan National Park, was sentenced to three years in prison for dereliction of duty in connection with Billy’s detention.
The court acquitted him and his three co-accused subordinates because they were simply carrying out their superior’s orders.
Mr. Chaiwat intends to file an appeal of his conviction under Section 157 of the Criminal Code, which addresses the conduct of public officials. The Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases granted parole in the amount of 800,000 baht and prohibited his departure from the country.
Billy was last seen on April 17, 2014, when Mr. Chaiwat and other park officers detained him at a checkpoint near the entrance to Bang Kloi village in the Kaeng Krachan district of Phetchaburi. He had honey from wild bees and a motorbike seized from him.
He was en route to a meeting with indigenous Karen villagers in preparation for a hearing in their lawsuit against park officers, including Mr. Chaiwat, for forcible evictions and the burning of their homes.
The court found Mr. Chaiwat guilty of dereliction of duty for failing to notify Billy’s arrest and for failing to turn him over to police.
Turning to the allegation of forced detention, the court stated that a witness observed the four defendants transporting Billy to a vehicle without using any force.
There were no witnesses who corroborated the defendants’ claim that they had released Billy near an intersection. Nonetheless, no witnesses appeared to testify that the four defendants unlawfully detained the activist.
In reviewing the murder allegations, the court determined that forensic evidence could not establish that Billy’s bones discovered in 2019 by Department of Special Investigation (DSI) agents were his. When the DSI first attempted to press murder charges, prosecutors said they believed the DNA evidence was not conclusive.
The court noted that the plaintiffs were unable to demonstrate whether or not Billy was still alive. The evidence was insufficient to convince the court that the four defendants committed a homicide.
The attorney for Billy’s wife, Pornpen Khongkhachornkiart, stated that her client intended to appeal the ruling.
She stated that Billy was still deemed missing due to the fact that Mr. Chaiwat was found guilty of not following proper procedure regarding the detention of a suspect, as a result of which Mr. Chaiwat was found guilty. She added that state officials are therefore obligated to investigate his disappearance.
Pinnapa “Mueno” Preuksapan, the widow of Billy, shed tears upon hearing the verdict. She pledged to continue fighting until all lingering questions about her husband’s whereabouts are resolved.
Mr. Chaiwat, 59, was terminated for his alleged involvement in the arson of Karen villagers’ homes in the national park almost a decade ago, but he appealed the decision. In September of last year, the Phetchaburi Administrative Court reinstated him as a civil servant.
In February of this year, he was named the new director of the National Parks Office.
Athapol Charoenshunsa, the director-general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, stated that Mr. Chaiwat could continue performing his duties because the court case against him had not yet reached a conclusion.