Court Sheds No Light on Japanese Reporter's Death in 2010

Soldiers clash with Redshirt protesters at Democracy Monument on 10 April 2010.

BANGKOK — A Thai court said today it lacked sufficient evidence to determine who killed a Japanese reporter and two demonstrators during the military crackdown on Redshirt protesters in 2010.

Hiroyuki Muramoto, a 43-year-old cameraman working for Reuters news agency, and two Redshirt protesters, Wasan Phuthong and Tossachai Mek-ngamfah, were shot dead close to Democracy Monument during clashes between soldiers and Redshirt protesters on the night of 10 April 2010. 

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A Redshirt protester carried a fellow demonstrator injured in the clashes to safety on 10 April 2010.

Thai authorities asked the court in late 2010 to identify those responsible for deaths of the three victims, who were among 20 other civilians killed that night. Five soldiers also died in the clashes, including the field commander of the operation.

A judge read the inquest’s findings this morning at South Bangkok Criminal Court. 

"[The court] does not know who committed the acts, and does not know the direction of the gunfire," he said.

According to witnessess, Hiroyuki was filming the skirmishes between security officers and protesters around Democracy Monument when two grenades hit a group of soldiers at around 8 pm. After the explosions, soldiers retreated from their initial position in front of Satriwitthaya school to Wan Chart Bridge, while Hiroyuki, Wasan, Tossachai, and number of other protesters briefly pursued the soldiers. Gunshots then rang out, and the three victims were killed.

Although the judge acknowledged that "reliable" witnesses testified hearing gunshots from the military position, he said that none of them clearly saw who fired the bullets or the moment the three victims were shot. 

In addition, no bullets were found in the bodies of the three men, so the court was unable to determine the type of ammunition or direction of the gunfire, the judge said.

He also noted that at least 108 bullets were also fired from the military position, citing forensic evidence collected from the crime scene, but that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether any of the bullets hit and killed Hiroyuki, Wasan, and Tossachai. 

Previous inquests point to soldiers

In total, more than 90 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the 2010 crackdown, which lasted from 10 April to 19 May. The operation was ordered by then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in response to the tens of thousands of Redshirt protesters who were occupying parts of Bangkok to demand a fresh election. 

Previous court inquests have blamed the military for 18 deaths in the 2010 crackdown. The other nine cases were deemed inconclusive because of insufficient evidence. 

According to the court inquest issued on 30 September 2013, two other protests in the same vicinity as Hiroyuki were killed by gunfire that came from the military’s position.

Government officials have conceded that soldiers used live ammunition in the clashes, but say security officers only used firearms to defend themselves against the Redshirt-allied militants.

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Taishi Akimoto, first secretary of the Japanese embassy in Bangkok, arrives at the Criminal Court on 30 April 2015.

Today's long-delayed inquest was the second delivered since the military seized power from a Redshirt-backed government on 22 May 2014. The coup was staged by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, one of the commanders in the 2010 crackdown. 

In July 2014, a court inquest ruled that the first protester to die on 10 April 2010 was killed by gunfire from a military position.

Last month, Gen. Prayuth ordered seven retired military officers to join the investigation teams that oversee inquest files of the 2010 crackdown victims. 

'Disappointed and puzzled'

Thida Thawornseth, a core leader of the Redshirt's official organization, told reporters today that she was disappointed and puzzled by the inquest’s findings.

"I am disappointed. In previous inquests, the court ruled that protesters in the same area were killed by soldiers’ [gunfire]," Thida said. She also expressed disbelief that any armed militants would have been able to infiltrate the ranks of soldiers who blocked Wan Chart Bridge and fire at the protesters.

"I respect the court's decision, but it also left me puzzled," she said.

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Thida Thawornseth, a core leader of the Redshirt movement, at the Criminal Court in Bangkok on 30 April 2015.

Klin Tianyim, brother-in-law of Wasan, said he respects the court's authority, but added that he found the inquest's findings difficult to belief.

"I was very close to Wasan. I saw soldiers with my own eyes. Who else could have been there?" said Klin, who joined the protests on 10 April 2010 with his brother-in-law. 

He told reporters that he will consult with his lawyer about any further possibility of "seeking justice" in the case. 

Human rights groups have criticized the impunity granted to Thai authorities, who have never been held legally accountable for the 2010 crackdown and many other abuses.

Abhisit and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, were initially charged with murder over the deadly military operation, but the case was dropped by the Criminal Court last August.  The pair is currently being investigated for "abuse of power" charges by Thailand's anti-graft agency, which could lead to their retroactive impeachment and five year ban from politics. 

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