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The Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases has dismissed murder charges against four national park officials charged for the alleged abduction and murder of indigenous rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, citing insufficient evidence.

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet (Center) with Porlajee's widow Pinnapa Pruksapan (second from right) after the verdict was delivered. (Photo from ไข่แมวชีส)

A community and indigenous rights activist and a leader of the Bang Kloi indigenous Karen community, Porlajee was last seen on 17 April 2014, after he was detained by then-Superintendent of Kaeng Krachan National Park Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn and four other officials for allegedly foraging for wild honey. Chaiwat insisted he only held Porlajee for questioning before letting him go and denied any involvement in his disappearance.

Before his death, Porlajee had been campaigning for the Bang Kloi community’s right to return to the original location of their village at Chai Phaen Din in the Kaeng Krachan forest, to live according to their traditional way of life. He had also been campaigning for the community to be compensated for the damage caused during a forced evacuation in 2011, when park and military officials raided the Bang Kloi Bon and Chai Phaen Din villages and burned down their houses and rice barns.

In September 2019, fragments of a human skull were found in a 200-litre oil drum in the Kaeng Krachan Dam, along with 2 steel rods and pieces of charcoal. The bone fragments were later confirmed to be Porlajees by DNA testing, leading to speculation by DSI officers that his body was burned to destroy evidence.

Chaiwat, now Director of the National Parks Office in the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation and three other park officials were charged with pre-meditated murder and indicted in August 2022 for their alleged involvement in Porlajees abduction and death  The trial began on 24 April, 9 years after Porlajee went missing.

Before the trial, civil society organisations demanded that the four park officials be suspended to ensure that the trial will be handled properly. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment did not respond to the demand.

The Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases ruled today (28 September) to dismiss the charges against the four officials, citing insufficient evidence proving that they abducted and murdered Porlajee. The Court also noted that it does not believe Porlajee is dead as the bone fragments cannot be conclusively proven to be his and the prosecution did not present enough evidence proving that he has died.

However, the Court found Chiwat guilty of misconduct for not recording Porlajee’s arrest and not handing him over to the local police to be charged for being in possession of wild honey. Chaiwat was sentenced to 3 years in prison, but was later granted bail in order to appeal the case.

The remaining three officials were not found guilty of misconduct since the Court ruled that they were only following Chaiwat’s order.

Chaiwat was previously suspected of involvement in the killing of community rights activist and former Pheu Thai MP candidate Tassakamon Ob-om, who had been campaigning for the Bang Kloi community. Tassakamon was shot and killed on 10 September 2011, just three years before Porlajee’s disappearance. Chaiwat was charged with pre-meditated murder, but was later acquitted.

Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, said after the verdict was delivered that it is possible to appeal the sentence, but the legal team has to first study the ruling in detail. She also said that they will have to discuss with the DSI and the public prosecutor on how to seek more evidence.

After 9 years, the case has gone back to square one. Pornpen said that although Porlajee has been missing and was last seen in the custody of the park officials, the Court did not believe that he has died, and so the authorities must take responsibility for Porlajee’s family and community by finding the answer as to what happened to him.

Pornpen noted that the DSI were responsible for testing the bone fragments and found that the DNA matched Porlajee’s relatives. She said that his family is distraught by the Court’s ruling that the bones were not his, as the authorities are going back and fourth on whether he is dead or not. This is a feeling faced by families of enforced disappearance victims, she said, while no one is being held accountable for the disappearance.

Porlajee’s widow Pinnapa Pruksapan told reporters she had nothing else to say but that she wanted to know where Porlajee went – a question she has been asking for the past 9 years and for which she has never received an answer.

Meanwhile, lawyer Preeda Nakpiw said that the legal team is likely to request an extension to the timeframe in which they are required to file an appeal, as there are several points in which they disagree with the court. He said that Porlajee’s family believes the state is responsible for protecting citizens’ lives, physical well-being and property, and that it needs to be pointed out during an appeal that the officials must explain whether they had released Porlajee and what happened to him.

CrCF President Surapong Kongchantuk said that the family intends to file a civil lawsuit against Chaiwat and the organization he is affiliated with for damages, and will be appealing the ruling on the murder charges. Surapong also said that Chaiwat must be dismissed from his official position immediately, since he has already been sentenced to prison for misconduct and is being accused of pre-meditated murder and concealing a body, which are serious offences.

Surapong said that the ruling in Porlajee's murder trial shows how necessary the anti-torture and enforced disappearance act is, as normal judicial process cannot find evidence that officials are responsible for enforced disappearance, and is not able to find a body or evidence of murder. The new law is therefore needed so that officials can be held accountable, as there would be no need to find a body and only evidence of an abduction would be needed. The Act would allow the justice system to improve in line with international laws. Although Surapong said that it is a shame the new law only recently came into effect, but it will help prevent state officials from committing crimes and make the legal proceedings more fair.

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