On 21 June 2004, Charoen Wat-aksorn was assassinated as he alighted from a bus returning to Prachuab Khiri Khan after he gave testimony about environmental destruction in Bo Nok and Ban Krut to the Senate in Bangkok. Charoen was a prominent human rights defender and leader of the Love Bo Nok group who fought for over ten years until his death against coal-fired power, large-scale shrimp farming and other environmental destruction in Prachuab Khiri Khan. As a result of a lengthy and persistent struggle by Charoen’s widow, other members of Love Bo Nok, and additional human rights and environmental activists, five persons were arrested and prosecuted for involvement in his murder. The two alleged gunmen, Saneh Lekluan and Prajuab Hinkaew, who confessed to assassinating Charoen, died in jail under suspicious circumstances before court proceedings began. On 30 December 2008, one of the alleged masterminds, Thanu Hinkaew, was convicted of plotting to murder Charoen and sentenced to death; the other two alleged masterminds, Manote Hinkaew and Juea Hinkaew, were acquitted. On 16 March 2013, the Appeal Court reversed the conviction of Thanu Hinkaew, on the basis that although Saneh Lekluan and Prajuab Hinkaew confessed to murdering Charoen Wat-aksorn, and confessed that they were hired to do so by Thanu Hinkaew, the evidence could not be confirmed directly by the Court as they were dead.
The Asian Human Rights Commission expresses grave concern over this decision by the Appeal Court and the failure to secure justice in the case of a murdered human rights defender and environmental activist. Charoen Wat-aksorn was one of over 20 activists murdered during the first government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his murder, like many others, was carried out through a combination of influential local figures and complicit state officials (See summaries and analysis of these cases in Tyrell Haberkorn, “Appendix 1: Collusion and Influence Behind the Murders of Human Rights Defenders in Thailand,” article 2, Vol. 4, No. 2, April 2005). What made the case of Charoen’s murder different than many of the others is that impunity was challenged through the actions by his widow, Korn-uma Pongnoi, and other activists. In the ruling by the Court of First Instance, the judges argued that Thanu Hinkaew was motivated by anger with the affects on his business interests caused by Charoen’s actions to defend human rights and the environment; sufficient evidence of motive was not found in the case of the two accused masterminds and they were acquitted. The combination of the motive, the confessions of the two gunmen, and additional evidence was found sufficient by the judges in the Court of First Instance to convict Thanu. In contrast, in the ruling by the Appeal Court, the judges argued that there was not sufficient evidence of motive for any of the three accused masterminds and the ruling against Thanu was dismissed.
While the Asian Human Rights Commission objects to the death penalty as a matter of principle, the full dismissal of charges against Thanu Hinkaew is a grave miscarriage of justice. The primary reason the judges gave is that although the two gunmen confessed to being hired by Thanu, this confession was made during the investigation only. As Saneh Lekluan and Prajuab Hinkaew died before court proceedings began, their confession did not directly enter the court record as testimony. The next step in this case is for the prosecutor prosecutor, who is the plaintiff in this case, to appeal to the Supreme Court.
When Saneh Lekluan and Prajuab Hinkaew, the two alleged gunmen, were arrested and placed in jail, their relatives expressed concerns that they would not leave jail alive. Their fears were correct. On 21 March 2006, before the hearings to obtain witness testimonies were due to begin, Prajuab died in jail, reportedly from a bacterial infection. Then as the hearings were getting underway, on 3 August 2006 Saneh also reportedly died in prison, reportedly due to blood circulation failure as a result of malaria. When Saneh died, the prison hospital director reported that he had not shown any signs of malaria before dying (See UP-180-2006: UPDATE (Thailand): How did the killers of environmentalist Charoen Wat-aksorn die?). While no formal charges were ever brought in connection to the deaths of Saneh Lekluan and Prajuab Hinkaew, the combination of the unexpected nature of their deaths and the timing shortly before they were to give oral testimony in court is worth noting.
The decision of the Appeal Court to allow one of the masterminds of the murder, identified by the gunmen, to go free suggests the entrenched difficulties in ending impunity in Thailand. Charoen Wat-aksorn’s struggle brought him into conflict with influential business figures who chose to use violence, rather than negotiation or a change to responsible business practices, in response to his calls to protect the environment and the rights, livelihood, and health of local community members (For further information on Charoen’s life and struggle, please see Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, “Tribute to murdered environmentalist Charoen Wat-aksorn,” Ethics in Action Vol. 4, No. 4.). The decision of the Appeal Court is a direct signal to others unafraid of using violence to protect their interests. The message here is clear: even in the rare case that you are convicted of hiring an assassin to murder your opponent, if the key witnesses do not survive to give testimony in the court, you may be acquitted later.
On 21 June 2013 morning, Charoen Wat-aksorn’s widow and others will mark the ninth anniversary of his death by going to the Si Yaek Bo Nok temple in Prachuab Khiri Khan where a monument to him is located. As this anniversary approaches, the Asian Human Rights Commission calls on the Thai government to take action to ensure that the judiciary acts impartially and to fully serve justice.