BANGKOK — When a court on Tuesday told two men and a woman they were cleared of charges they shot at security forces during a political unrest seven years ago, they probably expect to walk free.
But any sense of relief after two years in prison soon dissolved when the same set of judges ordered them back to jail on the grounds prosecutors may appeal.
The three defendants were among five people arrested shortly after the military seized power in 2014 and identified as members of the “Blackshirts,” armed militants who fought with security forces during an attempt to disperse street protests in April 2010. A defense lawyer said he’s surprised the three did not go free despite being cleared.
“I don’t want to say whether this is normal or abnormal, but I can say it’s not something that happens often,” Winyat Chartmontree said by telephone, after carefully choosing his words.
The court acquitted Ranarit Suricha, Chamnarn Phakeechai, and Punika Chusri for want of evidence Tuesday morning. Two other defendants, Kittisak Soomsri and Preecha Yooyen, were found guilty of firearm charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison each.
Winyat said he found it hard to comprehend the court’s reasoning in jailing those who were acquitted.
“The judges said it themselves, that there was not sufficient evidence,” the lawyer said. He compared it to other cases related to the 2010 unrest in which defendants were promptly freed upon acquittal.
He said he would try to secure bail for them as he could find bond money. The prosecutor had not filed any appeal as of Tuesday afternoon, Winyat added.
Police announced the arrests in September 2014 after all five suspects spent a week in secret military detention.
Somyot Pumpanmuang, the national police chief at the time, said they were the black-clad militants who fired assault rifles and grenades at soldiers during an operation to clear anti-government demonstrators from Ratchadamnoen Avenue on the night of April 10, 2010. The protesters demanded then-PM Abhisit Vejjajiva step down and fresh elections.
The government eventually called off the crackdown. The violence that night claimed 27 lives. Five were soldiers, including the colonel in charge of the operation. The street protest itself came to an end a month later when it was crushed by another military operation.
All five suspects had been remanded in prison since their arrests. They initially confessed to the crimes but later withdrew their confessions; their lawyer said all were tortured during interrogation.
In today’s verdict, the court said Kittisak and Preecha were identified as the armed militants by witnesses at the scene, including an undercover police officer, and could not provide alibis proving otherwise.
The court also cited the confessions given by the two men upon their arrest, a decision criticized by their lawyer Winyat.
“The laws said confessions obtained during interrogation must be carefully considered,” Winyat said.
While Ranarit, Chamnarn and Punika also confessed, the court said prosecutors failed to provide any hard evidence to back up their guilt.