(New York) – Thailand’s attorney general should overturn a departmental decision to drop the most serious charges against four park officials for the abduction and murder of a prominent ethnic Karen activist, Human Rights Watch said today. The officials currently face only minor malfeasance charges for the enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution of Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen in April 2014.
“The handling of Billy’s case makes a mockery of Thai government pledges to pursue justice and end the culture of impunity,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “For five years, Thai authorities have failed to prosecute officials who allegedly abducted this prominent rights defender, brutally murdered him, and burned his remains in an oil drum.”
At a January 27, 2020 news conference, public prosecutors with the Special Litigation Department announced that they had dropped the most serious charges against four park officials, including illegal confinement, premeditated murder, and concealing the victim’s body. The prosecutors contended that there is no clear evidence that Billy is dead because his body was never found, though the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) discovered skull fragments matching his DNA. The suspects will face only malfeasance in office charges for failing to hand him over to the police after arresting him.
The DSI and the Central Institute of Forensic Science held a January 29 news conference to defend their investigation and maintained that the genetic trace in one of the recovered bones matched that of Billy’s mother. But DSI inquiries of Billy’s relatives confirmed that all his matrilineal relatives are still alive. With only Billy missing, the investigators concluded the bone was part of his remains.
The condition of this piece of human skull, which was burned, cracked, and shrunk due to exposure to heat of 200 to 300 degrees Celsius, suggests the killers burned Billy’s body to conceal the crime. The DSI announced it would challenge the Department of Special Litigation’s decision and resubmit the case to the Office of the Attorney General within 30 days.
Billy’s wife Pinnapa “Mueno” Prueksapan told Human Rights Watch that she hoped the DSI’s investigation would answer very basic questions, such as who had abducted and killed her husband and who had obstructed justice.
Under the 2004 Special Investigation Act, the DSI is empowered to assume jurisdiction over serious criminal cases, including complex cases that require special inquiry, crimes committed by organized criminal groups, and cases in which the suspects are influential people or government officials.
Thailand is obligated under international treaties to which it is a party to investigate and appropriately prosecute enforced disappearance, torture, custodial deaths, and other alleged serious violations of human rights, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, in September 2019, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha ordered the investigators to ensure that their investigation into Billy’s death was watertight and would bring the culprits to justice, no matter who they were.
The investigation has been hindered because Thai law does not recognize enforced disappearance as a criminal offense. A government commits an enforced disappearance when state officials or their agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person or fail to disclose the person’s situation or whereabouts. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the Thai government to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Thailand signed in 2012, and amend the penal code to make enforced disappearance a criminal offense.
“The attorney general should support the DSI’s efforts to fully uncover the truth of Billy’s case, not just for his family’s sake but for all Thais who have had a loved one forcibly disappeared,” Adams said. “The Thai government needs to demonstrate its commitment to justice and stop influential officials from once again getting away with murder.”
On April 17, 2014, Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, then-head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, and his staff arrested Billy for alleged illegal possession of a wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey. The park officials claimed they released Billy after questioning him briefly and had no information regarding his whereabouts.
At the time of his enforced disappearance, Billy was traveling to meet with ethnic Karen villagers and activists in preparation for an upcoming court hearing in the villagers’ lawsuit against Chaiwat and the National Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
The villagers alleged in the lawsuit that in July 2011, park authorities burned and destroyed the houses and property of more than 20 Karen families in the Bangkloy Bon village. Billy was also preparing to submit a petition about this case to Thailand’s monarch. When he was arrested, he was carrying case files and related documents with him. Those files have never been recovered.
In September 2014, Police Region 7 officers filed malfeasance charges under article 157 of the penal code against Chaiwat and three other park officials for unlawfully detaining Billy. The other suspects named in the case are Boontaen Bussarakham, Thanaseth or Pitoon Chaemthes, and Krissanapong Jitthes. The DSI found traces of human blood in a vehicle belonging to the park office but was not able to verify if the blood belonged to Billy because the vehicle was cleaned before forensic experts could examine it.
Despite a long list of allegations against Chaiwat for serious abuses and misconduct during his tenure as head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, the government promoted Chaiwat to lead Thailand’s influential “Tiger Corps” forest and wildlife protection unit in May 2016. His current position is the chief of Ubon Ratchathani-based Protected Area Regional Office 9.
State-sponsored abuse of ethnic Karen villagers was cited internationally as one of the main reasons why Thailand has been unable to successfully win registration of Kaeng Krachan National Park as a World Heritage Site with UNESCO.