Final two acquitted of CentralWorld arson

The Southern Bangkok Criminal Court has acquitted two men, Saichol Phae Bua and Pinit Jannarong, of charges of setting fire to the CentralWorld shopping complex in Ratchaprasong at the end of the anti-government protest in May 2010, giving them the benefit of the doubt and judging the prosecution case inconclusive.

Red shirt supporters Saichol Phae Bua and Pinit Jannarong celebrate their acquittal after three years of imprisonment without bail. (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)

Four people were charged over the fire. The two others were tried separately in the Central Juvenile and Family Court and were also acquitted for lack of conclusive evidence.

In Bangkok South Criminal Court on Monday, the clearly apprehensive defendants reacted with beaming smiles of relief as the judge briefed them at the end of the one-hour reading of the judgement.

The judge said they would be released from custody within a day.

Mr Saichol, a Chainat native, burst into tears and Mr Pinit, from Chaiyaphum, was also clearly overwhelmed.

United Front for Demcoracy against Dictatorship (UDD) leaders Weng Tojirakan and Jatuporn Prompan, who had not shown up the during the trial, were at the court to congratulate them.

Red shirt supporters and sympathisers flocked to Lak Si temporary prison for political prisoners late in the afternoon to celebrate the two men's pending freedom after nearly three years in detention without bail.

Mr Pinit's mother Noopit Jannarong, 46, told the Bangkok Post she was so glad and so thankful for all the help they had received.

“He is a kind and gentle son, not a belligerent or gung-ho type, so our family believed all along that Pinit is innocent,” said Ms Noopit, who travelled with her husband from Chaiyaphum to be near their son, arriving early Monday morning at the prison.

The court cited clause two of Section 227 of the Criminal Procedures Code on the benefit of doubt, saying prosecutors had failed to bring the policemen who arrested Mr Pinit in the CentralWorld garage on the evening of May 19, 2010 to testify in court and explain just how he was acting like an arsonist when they apprehended him.

The court also said two of CentralWorld's security and fire-fighting units failed to confirm that they saw Mr Pinit being rounded up by the police. Two other staff members at the mall said they saw him taken into custody,  but could not say how Mr Pinit allegedly torched the shopping complex.

“The witnesses' testimony was inconclusive. They said some of the invading men in that early afternoon wore handkerchief-masks. There was also smoke, and the intruding men were far from the burning area,” the judgement said.

The court also said all the mall staff who were at the scene of the fire that day, and had testified, unanimously agreed they saw a group of men wearing black set the fires inside the mall. Mr Pinit wore a green t-shirt.

Mr Pinit was arrested and charged with theft. Arson was added later. Mr Saichol was arrested a month later at Sanam Luang. 

A key witness, Nattapol Charoensuk, told the court he took a photo of Mr Saichol inside the mall and of a man carrying a cooking gas tank walking inside the building. But he did not follow Mr Saichol after he took  their photos to see exactly what was going on.

“The photo [of the small cooking gas tank] alone is not enough to say that the defendant was igniting the fire. The witness did not provide other contextual details of how the arson occurred. Also, the tattoo on the man in the photos is not the same as the defendant's,” the court said.

The place where Mr Saichol was spotted by the witness was also far from the burning shops in the mall's Zone E. Given the lack of conclusive evidence in the prosecution case and the witness testimony, the two defendants were therefore acquitted.

Mr Saichol was sentenced to one year in prison for violating the emergency decree. The court ruled  that his sincere accounts provided after his arrest and during the investigation warranted a reduction in the prison term to nine months. Mr Saichol had already been imprisoned longer than the sentence, so he was set free.

Mr Pinit, the court said, had already been sentenced for violating the emergency decree after a separate trial for a theft charge, so he could not be further punished.

Related search:  red-shirt protests, 2010 violence, ratchaprasong, CentralWorld, arson, shopping complex fire, Saichol Phae Bua, Pinit Jannarong, criminal court, judgement, verdict, acquittal

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Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior Reporter