YALA — Thailand’s courts find themselves under intense scrutiny Friday after a judge shot himself to protest alleged interference in a trial that would have sent five men to death row.
Yala senior judge Khanakorn Pianchana pulled out a handgun and shot himself in the chest inside a courtroom moments after he acquitted five defendants of murder and firearm charges. In a court filing leaked on social media after his suicide attempt, Khanakorn said he was pressured by his supervisor to find the men guilty despite lack of evidence.
Khanakorn’s statements were written inside a full court verdict, which is typically released to the press after a ruling.
The judge said he was threatened by regional justice chief Permsak Saisrithong to deliver a guilty verdict on the five defendants, or Khanakorn himself would be placed under a disciplinary hearing if he disobeys.
Khanakorn said he could not bring himself to condemn the men due to lack of hard evidence. If found guilty, the defendants would have faced death penalty.
“Return justice to the people,” Khanakorn wrote at the end of the 25-page verdict. “My statements might hold weight as light as a feather, but a judge’s heart must be as firm as a mountain.”
Court spokesman Suriyan Hongvilai said the matter is under investigation and told reporters that a preliminary inquiry established that Khanakorn attempted suicide due to “personal stress.” However, that didn’t stop a wave of outcry and concerns for fairness in Thailand’s justice system on social media.
“If even a judge has to fight for justice, then what we the people do?” one popular Facebook page wrote.
Suspicions of interference in other cases were also raised because Khanakorn wrote in his statement that his experience was far from unique.
“At this moment, other fellow judges in Courts of First Instance across the country are being treated the same way as I was,” he wrote. “[If] I cannot keep my oath of office, I’d rather die than live without honor.”
Eyewitnesses at the scene told the media Khanakorn rose from his dais, turned to face the king’s portrait hung at the front of the courtroom, then shot himself. He remains in critical condition at the hospital.
Future Forward Party deputy leader Piyabutr Saengkanokkul said he doesn’t believe the official explanation that Khanakorn shot himself out of personal stress.
Writing in a Facebook post, Piyabutr said he has received information from the defendants that appears to confirm Khanakorn’s allegation of interference in the case. Piyabutr, who taught law before entering politics, said he will release the information “soon.”
The trial that led to Khanakorn’s suicide attempt involves murders of five people at a home in Yala province in June 2017. Police later arrested five suspects and accused them of engineering the murders.
But in his verdict, Khanakorn said investigators failed to produce evidence that would have implicated the five men beyond reasonable doubt.
He also filmed himself in a short video, leaked to social media after his suicide attempt, saying that the men weren’t necessarily innocent of the crimes, but there was no enough grounds to condemn them.
“When we punish someone, the punishment wasn’t limited to them alone. Their family is punished, too,” Khanakorn says in the video, which appears to have been filmed on the judge’s dais. “Therefore, if we are not absolutely sure, we shouldn’t punish someone.”