Courts: Judges are independent
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Courts: Judges are independent

Court of Justice responds to criticism raised after attempted suicide by judge who alleged interference

The 25-page statement allegedly from Judge Khanakorn Pianchana is shown on the Facebook page of Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, secretary-general of the Future Forward Party, on Friday. (Photo from Piyabutr Saengkanokkul - ปิยบุตร แสงกนกกุล Facebook)
The 25-page statement allegedly from Judge Khanakorn Pianchana is shown on the Facebook page of Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, secretary-general of the Future Forward Party, on Friday. (Photo from Piyabutr Saengkanokkul - ปิยบุตร แสงกนกกุล Facebook)

The Court of Justice has insisted there are mechanisms to ensure the independence of a ruling judge after one of them shot himself in the courtroom on Friday afternoon after reading a ruling.

Secretary-general Sarawut Benjakul said on Friday evening that his office on Monday would submit the case to the Judicial Commission, a panel of judges who make decisions concerning themselves by voting.

The move came following public shock and despair over the incident in Yala, and criticism following a suggestion by Court of Justice spokesman Suriyan Hongwilai that the apparent suicide bid by the judge might have been caused by stress involving personal issues.

Khanakorn Pianchana, 49, of Doi Saket district of Chiang Mai, was the presiding judge on Friday in a case in which five people were charged with murder, illegal association and gun-related offences.

After finishing reading the ruling in which he acquitted the five defendants in a courtroom in Muang district of Yala, Mr Khanakorn explained certain legal points to the defendants and their relatives.

He then read a statement he had prepared, walked from the bench to bow before anportrait of His Majesty the King, drew a 9mm pistol and shot himself. Policemen stationed in the courtroom took him to the Yala Hospital.

The judge sustained a through-and-through wound under the left chest. He is now stable, according to a police report on Saturday.

Before the trial, Mr Khanakorn posted a 25-page statement on his Facebook page, which later disappeared.

Future Forward Party secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul on Friday claimed to have received the document from the judge and others. It remains unclear why the judge would send it to the progressive party but in the recent allocation of House’s 35 panels, Future Forward is in charge of the panel on laws and the judicial system.

A statement posted by the party said the ruling on the case was initially scheduled on Aug 19. Since it was a case deemed important, Mr Khanakorn had to send it to the Region 9 chief judge’s office for a review.

When the ruling reached the regional chief judge’s office, two senior judges reviewed it first and wrote on the memo that they disagreed with it. The regional chief judge then allegedly stamped “confidential” on the memo and ordered Mr Khanakorn to rewrite the ruling based on the opinions of his superiors.

Mr Khanakorn pointed out one of the two high-ranking judges who reviewed his ruling had checked it out before and made changes only in minor details. He said he could not help but suspect he might have agreed with his ruling but something had changed his mind later.

Mr Khanakorn wrote that by law, if a chief judge disagrees with a ruling, he must put it in writing in the document. It didn’t happen in this case and instead Mr Khanakorn was told in confidence to reverse the ruling to convict the five defendants.

“If I complied with his request, there would have been no evidence in the case files showing that the conviction, instead of the acquittal, was the result of the chief judge’s order. Instead, it will be on me and my panel of judges who signed the ruling," he wrote.

“If I complied with the order, three of the defendants would have been executed for first-degree murder — there’s no lesser penalty to choose from — and two others would have been imprisoned as accomplices.

“The confidential memo also said if I insisted on acquitting them, I must detain them during an appeal, which makes no sense to me.”

He added that if he defied the order, he would be investigated and eventually he would have to quit. 

The crime in this case took place in June last year in Bannang Sata district. Five people were shot dead. Police, led by deputy chief Gen Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, arrested the suspects two months later.

Prosecutors charged three of the five defendants with collaborating in the murder of five people using guns and two others with helping them.

Mr Khanakorn’s statement said the case was not related to national security or terrorism. Yet all evidence and witnesses were acquired while the five were detained under martial law and emergency laws which allow detention of up to 30 days without charges, although the laws are intended for security or terrorism cases only.

The judge cited as an example a mobile phone the prosecution claimed to have been used by a suspect-turned-witness to contact others in committing the crime. The witness was surrounded, arrested and detained for unclear reasons. His mobile phone was not seized when the arrest and search took place but during his detention.

“Police found it outside his house near a chicken coop, which was an open space where anyone had access to. His DNA was not on it nor were there his phone records. It also was not registered under his name,” the judge wrote.

Discussing other problems faced by judges, Mr Khanakorn cited a lack of “financial fairness” as long office hours were spent on trials and revisions of petitions and orders.

“There’s no time left for us to write rulings during official hours so we have to work overtime at home without pay. Judges are also prohibited from accepting outside jobs to earn extra income.”

Such unfairness leads to “a lack of security and financial weaknesses, making them vulnerable to threats and persuasion”.

To remedy these problems, he made two proposals in the statement.

First, the House of Representatives should amend the Court of Justice law to prohibit a review of rulings before they are read and all forms of intervention.

Second, he urged the House, prime minister and cabinet to give financial fairness to all judges.

He ended the statement with: “Return rulings to judges. Return justice to people”. 

A clip from an unconfirmed source on social media showed the judge saying in the courtroom that convicting a person must be based on credible evidence and witnesses.

“Punishing a person doesn’t involve only him — his family is also penalised. If we aren’t absolutely sure, we shouldn’t punish him. However, this doesn't mean I guarantee that the five defendants did not commit the crime. They might have done it, but the judicial procedure must be transparent and valid so no one can say we wrongly punish them,” Mr Khanakorn said in the clip.

Asked to comment on the case, Pramote Prom-in, a spokesman of for the Region 4 Forward Command of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc), said security officials had never interfered with the justice system and several cases had been dismissed in the past.

Wan Muhammad Nor Matha, leader of the Prachachat Party which won in the Deep South, on Saturday praised Mr Khanakorn's courage after visiting him at the hospital.

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