Battling against a crooked system
Atchariya Ruangrattanapong fights for justice for the poor and vulnerable
A 19-year-old woman's plunge to her death from a moving truck which was initially recorded as an accident by police, but is now believed to be a murder, is another blow to the country's justice system, says social advocate Atchariya Ruangrattanapong.
Himself a victim of crooked police and cheating businessmen, Mr Atchariya said he found it all too easy to relate to the ordeal faced by the woman's family who had to battle to have a thorough investigation carried out.
Nareekan Yawiratch, who is believed to have been killed on her way home in Ayutthaya's Bang Pa-in district on July 19, is the latest in a long line to suffer from the abuse of power, bribery and betrayal that are endemic in Thailand due to what Mr Atchariya describes as "inequality between the rich and the poor".
InquiryLines, published bi-weekly on Mondays is a Bangkok Post column to present in-depth details of a range of issues from politics and social interest to eye-catching everyday lives.
"Police reform is badly needed to solve, or at least relieve, these problems," he said.
Mr Atchariya, 51, believes his role as co-founder of a legal association places him in the position to straighten out some of the injustices.
"My enemies are the bad eggs.
"They are the common criminals, the crooked police and the rogue state officials," he said.
The soon-to-be lawyer has studied Nareekan's death which deputy national police chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul said last Friday will now be treated as murder, and not an accident as claimed by Surapol Darakham, the driver of a truck from which the woman had fallen to her death.
The driver told police the woman had jumped out of the truck after accepting a lift home from an entertainment venue in the province.
"There is solid evidence to charge the driver with premeditated murder," Pol Gen Srivara said.
Mr Atchariya, meanwhile, believes there is more to the case than meets the eye as the murder may involve certain police officers based in Ayutthaya. The lawyer has presented police with a video clip of a conversation in which 300,000 baht was mentioned as a possible bribe to "clear things up".
The alleged bribe takes Mr Atchariya back a decade to when he was charged with trespassing and damaging public property during a legal conflict. In 2008, his construction firm was contracted for work, which it carried out, but the project owner refused to pay him. He was discussing the dispute in the project owner's property who subsequently accused him of trespassing and filed a complaint with the police in Pathum Thani.
However, Mr Atchariya insists he was charged with a crime he did not commit and says he was solicited for money by a police officer to end the investigation.
"That officer tapped his ring on the interrogation table and said tang [money] three times," Mr Atchariya said, adding he had no idea at first what the officer meant.
It was not until the officer dropped a coin on the table that it dawned on him what was being implied.
Mr Atchariya worked as a civil engineer but knew nothing about the law, which proved to be costly.
He said the firm owed him 2 million baht but instead of repaying the debt, it ended up gaining the legal upper hand over him when charges were pressed.
"I was gripped with fear because I know nothing about the law. I didn't want to be jailed," he said. The engineer-turned-constructor quickly hired a lawyer to help him.
However, Mr Atchariya, already feeling frustrated by the problems he was facing with the project owner and the lawsuit against him, also had issues with the lawyer he retained. The lawyer, after a quarrel with the inquiry officers, washed his hands of the case while keeping the fee which Mr Atchariya had paid him in advance.
The police also piled pressure on him to make a decision whether to confess or deny the charges.
The lawyer who walked away from the case was dishonest, according to Mr Atchariya. Despite having received 70,000 baht from Mr Atchariya, the lawyer secretly sold information to the firm he was in dispute with. The lawyer then disappeared when he was found out.
He and his wife became over more suspicious when police wrapped up the investigation in just 37 days without him being given a chance to present his own evidence.
The odds may have been stacked against him, but Mr Atchariya refused to bribe the police.
His family later hired a new lawyer who helped him win the legal battle. The court dropped the charge but police had failed to remove him from their database.
He subsequently suffered unexpected problems when trying to get a new job. He and his wife, who was then pregnant, staged a sit-in protest outside the Royal Thai Police office in 2010 as they believed he had been blacklisted by the authorities.
Mr Atchariya's plight led to much public interest, and donations poured in for him. Finally, the overwhelming sentiment supporting him compelled the police to remove his name from their records.
Mr Atchariya later landed a job at a building firm but quit after two months when he discovered the firm used substandard materials to stretch its profit margins.
Since then, Mr Atchariya has set about fighting on behalf of the victims of similar"'twisted justice". He capitalised on his systematic thinking afforded by years of his engineering line of work. At the same time, he acquired legal knowledge from sources available online.
He also frequently visited the courts to observe both civil and criminal cases in which an association he co-founded was providing legal assistance.
The Help Crime Victims Club was unveiled in 2013 when it provided legal assistance to a drug suspect who was ruled by the appeal court to be a scapegoat.
It had been falsely claimed by police that the 37-year-old Chiang Mai resident had been in possession of 7,000 methamphetamine pills. The man was jailed for nearly two years before new evidence emerged which cleared his name.
Through the years of directing the club, he uncovered many such instances of the police acting unprofessionally, if not downright criminally, Mr Atchariya said.
The police are not concerned with protecting the poor. They are more interested in investigating cases involving celebrities and rich people, he noted.
At police stations, "the rich are served with water and coffee while the poor were greeted with that table-tapping sound or handcuffs," Mr Atchariya said, adding that many poor suspects are often handcuffed and detained before being questioned.
"That is what happens at the police investigation stage, which marks the first step of the justice process," he said.
His club is determined to turn this inequality around and intends to expose the rogue officers in the Nareekan case.
Mr Atchariya said he is sometimes chided as a publicity seeker.
"I want to ask whether people think I would put my life on the line in return for short-lived publicity," he said, adding his club's fight against injustice has landed him in more than 30 legal cases, not to mention a slew of civil lawsuits "for sticking his nose in other people's business".
But he says nothing will change his intention to continue to fight for the rights of underprivileged victims of crime.
Mr Atchariya says his knowledge in legal affairs which he accumulated from running the club often misleads people to think he is a lawyer.
"I'm studying law at the Dhurakij Pundit University right now," he said. "After graduation, I'll sit an exam for a licence."