KANCHANABURI — A powerful construction tycoon was convicted of several crimes related to a high-profile poaching case last year in a national park but acquitted of the most serious count, a court ruled Tuesday.
The Thong Pha Phum Provincial Court sentenced Premchai Karnasuta to 16 months in prison for weapons-related charges and conspiring to poach wildlife. The court found him not guilty of poaching a black panther in a wildlife sanctuary in a case that sent the nation into an uproar.
Surrounded by a throng of reporters outside the courthouse after the ruling, Premchai said “I’d like to say only one thing – I’m sorry.”
His three co-defendants were convicted of weapons- and poaching-related offenses. Thanee Toommat was the only defendant convicted of poaching and sentenced to 3 years and 5 months in prison. He and Premchai were collectively fined 2 million baht.
Yong Dodkrue and Natee Riamsaen received sentences of 13 months and 4 months in jail, respectively. Natee, who was a helper uninvolved in the hunt, was granted two years probation and fined 10,000 baht.
Premchai and the other two were not granted probation by the court. His lawyers are expected to file an appeal.
All defendants except Premchai were convicted of possessing remains of a black panther. The tycoon was convicted of possessing remains of a wild pheasant. The three men were freed on bonds ranging from 400,000 baht to 500,000 each soon after the verdict was read.
Wichien Chinnawong, the ranger who arrested Premchai and was hailed for standing up against the wealthy and powerful, said after the court ruling that he was satisfied that justice was served to the black panther. Wichien was one of the plaintiffs in the case which ultimately led to the trial on a reduced set of six counts.
Deputy police commissioner Srivara Rangsibrahmanakul welcomed the verdict, saying he was “relieved” that Premchai and his party were found guilty. Srivara, who was criticized for kowtowing to Premchai after the crime, said the police did their best in investigating the case.
Gen. Srivara added that Premchai still faces a charge of possessing ivory stemming from a subsequent search of his mansion. That trial is underway with a verdict expected in June.
The 64-year-old president of construction conglomerate Italian-Thai and his co-defendants were arrested early last year at a campsite in the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, where authorities found firearms and animal remains, including those of a protected black panther.
Premchai’s arrest provoked an outpouring of anger and low expectations that such a powerful figure would be tried fairly. The black panther became a cause celebre in a spasm of activism that enjoyed wide public support.
“People are assuming we already won. But don’t forget that this case still has to go to the Court of First Instance and the Supreme Court. So in the end, he might not have to step into jail at all,” said Thatchapong, who led a group of activists called T’Challa for the protagonist of “Black Panther.”
“This is only his first offense. He is powerful, and people might forget about the case going forward,” Thatchapong said.
The Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, which was named after a renowned activist who committed suicide to provoke awareness of wildlife conservation, released a statement thanking those who helped push the case toward resolution.
“We’d like to commend the staff of the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary for their bravery in carrying out their duty and arresting the four defendants, and all the people who kept close watch on the case … until the guilty parties received punishment under the law,” the statement read. “Although the verdict might not fully satisfy the public, we believe the poaching case … is an important lesson to all Thai people.”
Additional reporting Asaree Thaitrakulpanich