As the police investigation of Premchai Karnasuta, the construction tycoon who was arrested for hunting endangered animals in a wildlife sanctuary, stumbles towards completion, there is a growing unease that the influential wrongdoer will escape with only a petty punishment. This case, which has attracted widespread attention, has now become less about Premchai himself, and more about the ability of Thailand’s justice system to prosecute the affluent and influential.

The arrest of Premchai and three accomplice in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary on 4th February, for poaching protected animals, including a rare black Indochinese leopard, was covered extensively by local and internationally media outlets. Reports that Premchai had not only killed a leopard, but had also eaten the endangered species in a soup, led to an outpouring of repulsion towards the billionaire CEO, sparking calls for justice from conservationists, animal rights groups and the general public.

Unfortunately, Premchai Karnasuta, the president and managing director of Italian-Thai Development (ITD), which has developed many of Thailand’s largest infrastructure projects, is hugely influential, and since the day of his initial arrest, there have been questions over whether he will ever be punished.

A poll by Bangkok University Research Centre found that most respondents (64.2%) believed Premchai Karnasuta would not be punished, escaping with little more than a fine and a slap on the wrist.

The failings of the Thailand’s justice system to detain and convict influential individuals is well documented, and there is a long list of politicians, celebrities, business moguls and their heirs, who have successfully escaped the clutches of the law. The recent news that Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya, the Red Bull heir who is wanted for the killing of a police officer, has disappeared from the Interpol listing, is a fine example of how authorities appear reluctant to pursue wealthy fugitives.

Authorities have given the public reasons to be cynical, dragging their feet in what appears to be a straightforward case, and raising suspicions that officials may be aiding the influential wrongdoer.

A recent meeting between senior police and Premchai gave many observers the impression the police investigation was biased, with the head of the investigators, Pol General Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, bowing low to the suspect and exhibiting “unusually polite” behaviour.

Commenting on the investigations team’s relationship with the tycoon, Srisuwan Janya, secretary-general of the Association to Protect the Thai Constitution, predicated that Premchai would receive only a minimal punishment, explaining, “It is very easy for the investigation team to help Premchai, as they can make the docket of his case and the evidence against him appear too weak and eventually the court will be unable to punish him or allow him to receive a minor punishment.”

 

Government officials often finding themselves charged and harassed when involved with high-profile cases such as the Premchai case. One regional police captain has already been punished for his actions against the construction magnate, and has been put on probation for accepting a complaint of cruelty to animals. According to the police captain’s superiors, the prevention of cruelty to animals legislation does not specify Indonesian leopards as one of the species protected by the law.

The latest twist in this dawdling investigation centers around ‘missing DNA evidence’ on knives found at Premchai’s campsite. According to deputy national police chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul these weapons were tainted with chemicals making it impossible to collect human DNA. The only DNA on the weapon comes from the slaughtered leopard. The police chief’s remarks were rebuked by Kanita Ouitavon, chief of the wildlife forensic science team who argued that the police chief’s comments were incorrect.

Across Thailand, images of the black leopard have become a symbol of the struggle for justice over corruption, with pictures of the protected animal widely displayed on social media, t-shirts, stickers and street art.

One mural of the black leopard in Bangkok’s Soi Sukhumvit 58 was mysteriously erased within 24 hours of the image going viral on social media, while all other graffiti in the surrounding area was left intact, contributing to a sense that authorities are trying to whitewash the incident.

The outcome of Pol General Srivara’s investigation, which is due to be completed by March 26, will be heavily scrutinised. If Premchai is given a harsh punishment for his crimes, will he accept the penalty, or will he be able to flee the country as other affluent fugitives have done?

If police fail to charge the construction tycoon with deliberately killing protected wildlife, protests are expected, and the public’s doubts regarding the ability of the justice system to convict one of the country’s most influential businessmen, will have been proven correct – the Thai justice system is unable to convict individuals such as Premchai, who operate above the law and beyond reproach.

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Daniel is an English Literature graduate from the University of London who has spent the past 20 years living and working in Southeast Asia. Passionate about education, health care, sustainable development, equality and human rights, Daniel is a regular contributor to Asian Correspondent, Ajarn, The Educator and Bangkok Post.

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