BANGKOK — Amnesty International called on Thai authorities Wednesday to reopen the investigation into three former officials after the Supreme Court upheld their acquittal in the 2004 murder of environmental activist Charoen Wat-aksorn.
The rights group urged Thailand to deliver justice in the case after the court ruled there was insufficient evidence to link the three men – a provincial administrator and his two sons – to the assassination of the 37-year-old pineapple farmer, who was shot to death in 2004 after successfully campaigning to stop the construction of two coal-fired power plants in the southern province of Prachuap Khiri Khan.
“The failure of the authorities to provide redress for Charoen and his family is a tragic development in a long battle for justice for him and other human rights defenders in Thailand,” the statement read. “Amnesty International renews its calls on authorities to take measures to protect all human rights defenders from attack and ensure that those responsible for crimes against them are brought to justice.”
The Supreme Court Tuesday upheld a 2013 Appeals Court judgment acquitting three local authorities who had been accused of plotting the murder: provincial administrator Monosh Hinkaew, former Bo Nok sub-district headman Juea Hinkaew, and local lawyer Thanu Hinkaew.
Two confessed hit men had said they were hired by the three defendants; however, they both died in custody in 2006 before they could testify against them.
Charoen became a local hero in 1995 after he mobilized Bo Nok villagers to fight against the coal plants until the government ordered the Gulf Electric Co. Ltd. to relocate the plants to Saraburi province in central Thailand.
The activist continued campaigning to protect local resources. On June 21, 2004, Charoen was returning from Bangkok where he’d gone to register a complaint alleging collusion involving a land grab, which jeopardized construction of a steel plant.
As he stepped off a bus at the Bo Nok bus station, two gunmen shot him eight times in the head.
The arrested gunmen, Sanek Lekluan and Prachuap Hinkaew, died separately in a Bangkok prison under unclear circumstances after they told the court the names of former officials who hired them to carry the killing.
In 2008, Thanu was sentenced to death by a criminal court. Manosh and Juea were acquitted.
Slain activist Charoen Wat-aksorn’s wife Kornuma Phongnoi, at center, stands outside The Supreme Court in Bangok on Tuesday along with about 100 villagers who insisted they would continue their mission to protect local resources despite the risks.
A confidential U.S. State Department cable prepared days after the conviction and released by WikiLeaks described it as “the first legal ruling of accountability” in the activist’s murder.
“The conviction of an alleged mastermind of the crime, instead of just the hired guns, offered at least temporary justice for a crime that sent a powerful message about the fate of those who dare to confront powerful interests,” read the cable sent Jan. 7, 2009, by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. “Furthermore, the mysterious death of the crime's suspected gunmen, while in state custody, does not bode well for the justice system's ability to shield itself from the operations of criminal networks.”
A lengthy series of appeals ensued, and in 2013, the Appeals Court acquitted all defendants and overturned Thanu’s conviction and sentence. The Supreme Court affirmed those rulings Tuesday.
Kornuma Phongnoi, Charoen’s wife, said though she could not agree with the verdict, she had to accept it. After 11 years fighting for justice in Charoen’s death, she said the justice system cannot be relied on for protection.
“After those behind the murder of Charoen Wat-aksorn were set free today, the influential politicians in Prachuap Khiri Khan will become bolder,” Kornuma wrote on a statement.
“That definitely makes it harder for us to protect and restore the local environment.”