Abrupt Judge Change Mars Al-Ruwaili Verdict

Mr. Abdulelah Alsheaiby

(1 April) Relatives of the Saudi businessman who went missing 24 years ago have been left angered by the verdict that acquits all defendants who were accused of abducting and murdering him.

Mr. Mohammad Al-Ruwaili was last seen in February 1990 in Bangkok. His disappearance came after 3 Saudi diplomats to Thailand were assassinated, amid the scandal involving the theft of numerous jewels from the palace of the Faisal Royal Family in Saudi Arabia by a Thai janitor. 

Five police officers –  Lt.Gen. Somkid Boonthanom, Pol.Col. Sorarak Jusanit, Pol.Col. Praphas Piyamongkol, Pol.Lt.Col. Suradej Udomdee, and Pol.Sgt.Maj. Prasong Thongrung – have been accused of engineering the abduction and subsequent murder of Mr. Al-Ruwaili. 

Prosecutors alleged that the group of officers attempted to extract from Mr. Al-Ruwaili any information regarding the assassination of the 3 diplomats or the jewelry theft. 

Following long years of delays, the court resurrected the case in 2010 after public prosecutors, led by the Division of Special Investigation (DSI), claims to have secured new evidence related to Mr. Al-Ruwaili's disappearance.

Relatives of Mr. Al-Ruwaili were flown to Thailand as witnesses for the trial, and in December 2013 the last hearing was conducted. Judgment day was scheduled to be 31 March. 

Mr. Matrouk Al-Ruwaili and Mr. Ateeq Al-Ruwaili previously told Khaosod in exclusive interviews that they were not concerned by whether the verdict would convict or acquit the defendants, as they simply wanted to see the case of Mr. Al-Ruwaili reaching some sort of formal court verdict and legal conclusion. 

Well-placed sources in the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Thailand likewise expressed their belief that the relationship between the two kingdoms, which has been downgraded by the Saudis in retaliation for series of unsolved murders of high-profile Saudis in Thailand, could finally be revived after the ruling on the case was reached.

One official went as far as saying that the Saudis expected "zero chance" of a guilty verdict, instead hoped for an eventual concrete conclusion of the decades-long case.

Then – a few weeks before the scheduled ruling – the Saudis were informed that a judge had been abruptly changed during the judgment writing session. 

In an interview with Khaosod and Matichon, Mr. Abdulelah Alsheaiby, Charge d'Affaires of Saudi Arabia to Thailand, expressed his grave worry over the reports of the judge change and voiced his fears that the plaintiffs would not receive a fair trial.  

When contacted by Matichon reporters 2 days before the ruling, some officials in Ministry of Justice said they were not aware of the change of judge, while others refused to comment on the report, stating that reporters should "wait and see for themselves" on 31 March.

On last Friday, Khaosod and Matichon reporters again met with Matrouk Al-Ruwaili and Ateeq Al-Ruwaili, who had just flown in from Saudi Arabia to hear the verdict on 31 March. When asked to comment on the report of possible judge change, the two expressed shock and said had not been informed of the matter by the Saudi Embassy. 

A Saudi official said no one had told the pair as the report was merely unconfirmed rumour. Matrouk and Ateeq told our correspondent they would not comment on the news as it had not confirmed by any Thai officials, but nevertheless said a judge change would be highly inappropriate, as the judge has been involved in the procedure for years.

Finally, on the judgment, the Saudis' fears were confirmed when a new judge indeed appeared at the tribunal and delivered the verdict, dismissing the case against the five defendants on the grounds of insufficient evidence. 

In a press conference held several hours after the verdict was read, Mr. Thongchai Senamontri, Director of the Criminal Court, told reporters that the judge change was legal and in accordance with proper procedure, and should not cause of suspicion of any kind. 

Waving a cut-out report from Matichon newspaper in one hand, Mr. Thongchai explained that Mr. Somsak Konesuk was initially installed as the judge for Mr. Al-Ruwaili case three years ago and was scheduled to deliver his judgment on the case yesterday.

However, Mr. Thongchai said, Judge Somsak had also been under an investigation by a court committee for an "inappropriate" bail release he had allegedly approved without due procedure as he sat as a judge in Saraburi province years ago (Mr. Thongchai said he could not remember the exact year). 

According to Mr. Thongchai, the investigation was launched "a long time ago", but they only reached a conclusion on 6 January 2014 – few weeks after the last court hearing in Al-Ruwaili case – that Mr. Somsak is guilty of the alleged breach of court procedure, and was promptly suspended from all his present court duties, including the Al-Ruwaili case.

A new judge, Mr. Rungsak Chongkrasan, was subsequently installed and write the verdict instead of Mr. Somsak, Mr. Thongchai said, stressing that Mr. Somsak's removal was not related to Al-Ruwaili case, as the former judge was also involved in many other cases. 

Asked why the court had not informed or explained to the Saudi officials and their lawyers about the judge change, Mr. Thongchai replied that it was not the court's duty to do so. 

The Director of the Criminal Court also claimed he was aware of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Thailand hinged on the Al-Ruwaili verdict, but insisted that the court could not uphold international interests over the law.

"Thailand is a free country," Mr. Thongchai told reporters, "We must stick to the legal procedure of Thailand".

He added, "I certainly hope the Charge d'Affaires of Saudi Arabia will understand my explanation. I have read from the interview in Matichon that he is only concerned by the news of judge change. Now that I have explained how the change is perfectly within legal frameworks and unrelated to Al-Ruwaili case, I hope the Charge d'Affaires will accept the reasons".

He doesn't.

In the press conference at Intercontinental Hotel on the same afternoon, Mr. Alsheaiby said via his interpreter that he was not surprised by the verdict, as he already anticipated a negative outcome ever since he first heard about the judge change several days ago. 

"We feel very uncomfortable," Mr. Alsheaiby apparently told reporters, "We fear that the judgment did not reflect the reality".  

The diplomat said he will report the matter to Riyadh and wait for any possible retaliatory measures the Saudi government might adopt against Thailand. 

He added, "Let me stress again, we are deeply disappointed by the ruling. We suspect that the case has been interfered. The defendants have already tried to change the judge many times in the past. I ask the media to decide what their intention really is".

Mr. Thongchai admitted that the defendants, namely Lt.Gen Somkid, requested to have Mr. Somsak removed from the case in November last year, citing their opinion that they were not receiving fair trial under Mr. Somsak. According to Mr. Thongchai, the court committee eventually dismissed the defendants' request and let Mr. Somsak stay on the case – until he was later removed in January.

According to a source, the defendants filed the request after Mr. Somsak insisted that a potential witness in the case, who is now residing in Saudi Arabia, could testify via teleconference against the defendants. 

The witnes, Pol.Lt.Col. Suwitchai Kaewphalue, also provided the DSI with a ring said to belong to Mr. Al-Ruwaili. The evidence was later dismissed as inadequate by the new judge in the verdict on 31 March.

Whatever the real reasons for Mr. Somsak's removal might be, Saudi officials and Al-Ruwaili's relatives vowed to appeal the ruling, and to pursue the case until "justice" is done. 

Mr. Matrouk Al-Ruwaili said the case involving his relative's disappearance is merely one of many cases committed against Saudis in Thailand that went unresolved. "When will this end?" Mr. Matrouk said, "The people should uphold the interests of the country over the protection of these [perpetrators]"

Meanwhile, Mr. Ateeq Al-Ruwaili expressed his disbelief that the judge has been changed so suddenly, so shortly before the verdict, and in such questionable manner.

"Our case is not a traffic violation," Mr. Ateeq said bitterly, "It's serious. It's about a missing man's life. Can't they at least wait after the case is completed before they remove the judge?"

 

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