When Thai judge Khanakorn Pianchana reached the end of the judgment in a case he had been hearing, he read out a statement. He next walked from the bench to bow before a portrait of Thai King, Maha Vajiralongkorn. Then he took a pistol from his pocket and shot himself. He was immediately rushed to hospital where he is now reported as out of danger. But what caused the judge to take such dramatic and potentially fatal action?
The case before Judge Khanakorn Pianchana involved five people charged with offences including murder, illegal association and certain gun-related offences. They were arrested two months after the shooting of five people in the remote Bannang Sata district. Three of the accused were charged with the murders and the remaining two with being accomplices.
Newspaper reports claim that though the police said the crime and the resulting trial were unrelated to ‘national security or terrorism’, all the evidence and witnesses were obtained under martial law and other emergency legislation that allows for up to 30 days detention without charge.
The judge was obviously concerned that the evidence presented to the court was inadequate to sustain a murder charge. For example, according to the Bangkok Post, the judge was unhappy about a mobile phone that was supposed to prove involvement of one of the accused. Yet the phone was not taken from the accused at the time he was arrested, but later, during his detention, when he was not present.
‘Police found it outside his house near a chicken coop, which was an open space where anyone had access. His DNA was not on it, nor were there his phone records. It also was not registered under his name,’ said the judge.
In his 25 page statement, also posted on Facebook but subsequently removed, he alleged that ‘senior judges’ tried to force him to convict the five accused, even though he had found the evidence inadequate for a conviction.
Had he followed orders, he would have sentenced three to death and the other two to life in prison. He wrote that other judges in courts of first instance across Thailand were experiencing the same pressure as he was subjected to, and added that if he was not able to keep his oath of office, he would 'rather die than live without honour.’
He said the law should be changed to prohibit a review of court rulings before they are handed down, and to prohibit all other forms of ‘intervention’. At the end of his statement he said: ‘Return rulings to judges. Return justice to the people.’
A video clip on social media showed the judge in court saying that convictions had to be based on credible evidence and witnesses.
He also said, ‘Punishing a person doesn’t involve only him – his family is also penalised. If we (judges) aren’t absolutely sure, we shouldn’t punish him. However, this doesn’t mean I guarantee that the five (accused) 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.’
One of Thailand’s opposition political parties, Future Forward, issued a statement after the shooting. The party, regarded as ‘progressive’, said that they had received a copy of the judge’s document. The Bangkok Post said there was not certainty about why the judge had sent his statement to the party, but added that the party was in charge of the panel on ‘laws and the judicial system’.
Future Forward’s statement said that the judge was to have issued his ruling in August. But because the case was ‘deemed important’, he had to send it to the office of the regional chief judge ‘for a review’.
Two senior judges looked at his findings and wrote a memo saying they disagreed with him. According to the party’s statement, the regional chief judge then stamped ‘confidential’ on the memo and ordered that the judge rewrite his decision ‘based on the opinion of his superiors.’
In his statement the judge said when a chief judge disagreed with a ruling, the chief judge was supposed to put that disagreement in writing in the document. But it didn’t happen this time and instead he was told via a confidential memo to reverse his decision and convict all five accused.‘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 added, ‘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.’
According to the judge’s statement if he had not obeyed the order, an investigation would have followed and eventually he would have had to quit his job.
The judge made two suggestions in his statement. He said the House of Representatives should amend the law to ‘prohibit a review of rulings before they are read, and all forms of intervention’.
The other was that the House, the prime minister and the cabinet should give ‘financial fairness to all judges.’
In the wake of the shooting, many people have praised the judge, saying he had shown great courage in highlighting the plight of the judiciary and the pressure they experienced.
Others, however, have questioned his motives, claiming the shooting had nothing to do with the case he had been hearing but was due to ‘stress involving personal issues’.
The justice authorities have also insisted that mechanisms existed to protect the independence of the judiciary and individual judges. While permission has now been given for the house committee on legal affairs, justice and human rights to review the claim of interference, its members were warned by the government not to ‘grill’ the judiciary.
There have also been calls for an inquiry into the ‘examination’ of Judge Khanakorn’s ruling.
Responding to the shooting and the judge's statement, the International Commission of Jurists said it highlighted the need for urgent reform of the judiciary to strengthen its independence in the face of political interference.
The ICJ’s Asia director, Frederick Rawski, said his organization had worked for years with the judiciary in southern Thailand to improve the administration of justice, particularly problems such as ‘the improper admission of evidence and problematic evidence-gathering by security forces countering armed groups.’
‘This case again shows how misuse of emergency decrees in southern Thailand has aggravated the political pressure exerted on judges.’