Thai construction tycoon Premchai Karnasuta has been sentenced to a total of 16 months in prison, but not for the killing of an endangered black panther that prompted outrage and protests around the country last year.
Thong Pha Phum district courthouse in Kanchanaburi province today convicted Premchai for illegal weapons possession (a six-month jail sentence), the killing of a pheasant (another two months) and conspiracy to poach wildlife (eight months) but acquitted him of the most serious crime, reported BBC Thailand.
Charges related to the possession of the black panther carcass were instead pinned on the three other defendants in the case.
“I’m sorry,” he said to reporters after posting bail for THB400,000 (about US$12,6000).
— vajiravit (@vajiravit) March 19, 2019
Premchai, the 64-year-old managing director of Italian-Thai Development, the largest construction firm in Thailand, was arrested in the Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi in February 2018.
He was detained with three others — two men and one woman — after rangers stumbled on their campsite and found guns and animal carcasses, including a Kalij pheasant, a red muntjac (aka a barking deer), and the pelt of a black leopard.
All of which are protected species in Thailand.
According to local-language outlet Sanook, fellow defendant Yong Dodkruea, 66, was sentenced to a total of 13 months in prison, four of which are tied to possession of the black panther carcass. The court also set his bail at THB400,000 (about US$12,6000).
The two other also charged with possessing the panther carcass are 44-year-old Nathee Riamsaen, who was fined THB10,000 (US$316) and sentenced to four months in prison, and 57-year-old Thanee Thummat. Nathee’s sentence, however, was suspended for two years.
While Thanee also got four months for “possession” of the carcass, he also had the overall harshest sentence, earning two years and 17 months in prison that breaks down as follows: three months for illegal firearm possession, four months for the panther carcass, six for illegally carrying firearms in public, four months for conspiracy to poach, and a year each for poaching and “collecting forest products.” The court set his bail at THB500,000 (about US$15,800).
He was the only defendant found guilty of all charges.
Premchai and Thanee were additionally ordered to pay THB2 million (about US$63,000) — with a 7.5 percent interest rate per year starting from February 2018 — to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation for damages caused, local media reports.
None of the defendants are allowed to leave the country unless granted permission from the court.
Struck a chord
The case, when it first made headlines last year, fueled nationwide outrage in a country fed up with impunity and corruption.
The striking images of the skinned panther went viral, inspiring protests that saw demonstrators don black panther masks and create graffiti images of the big cat across walls around Bangkok. It also launched online petitions signed by well over 200,000 people demanding an investigation.
Thai media followed every detail of the case, including the authorities’ investigation of human feces found at the scene and a raid on Premchai’s home, where police uncovered a stash of ivory and guns.
“While poor people and forest dwellers are often punished for foraging or hunting to feed their families, tycoons and officials can hunt for leisure with little fear of getting punished.”
— Wadee D. (@wddew99) June 5, 2018
Arrests and convictions for poaching happen frequently in Thailand but are indeed rare when it comes to prominent individuals.
“(It) struck a chord with everyone who sees a double standard in the country’s law enforcement,” said Human Rights Watch’s Sunai Phasuk.
Amid mounting public outcry, junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha said last year that if the courts found Premchai guilty, it would not “matter how big he is.”
16 months not enough?
As of press time #sueydam or #blackpanther is the No. 1 trending hashtag on Thai Twitter.
Some netizens appear to be satisfied with the verdict.
A better day is today.
— JP (@khunjumpoon) March 19, 2019
That sentiment is reportedly shared by public prosecutor and chief of the western Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary Wichian Chinnawong, who arrested the defendants last year.
“Today, I’m pretty satisfied (with the verdict),” he told Thai PBS in a broadcast interview. “I trust in our criminal justice system and in the official’s hard work and ethics… I think the black panther received justice today.”
“I think the court proved today that the law also prosecutes the rich.”
However, many others seemed to disagree.
“16 months seems to little, no?” one asked.
— พี่จินหนูขอไปหาแทฮยอนก่อนนะ😁💕(ไอ้อ้วนเอย) (@bena_baba) March 19, 2019
“I want to read the full decision because I don’t understand why he (Premchai) was acquitted for possession,” another wrote.
— Pleum (@PleumP9) March 19, 2019
So what do you think Coconauts? Does this verdict represent real justice? Let us know below in the comments or tweet us @CoconutsBangkok.
Additional reporting by AFP.