Case of Central World arson to be ruled in late March

The South Bangkok Criminal Court has scheduled 25 March to give its ruling on the Central World arson case during the political unrest on 19 May 2010.

The remaining defendants in this case are Saichon Phaebua, 30, and Phinit Channarong, 28; two juveniles were already acquitted by the Central Juvenile and Family Court late last year.

Phinit was arrested by police on the afternoon of 19 May 2010 along with many other red shirts inside the shopping mall.  He and 6 others, including two women, were charged with robbery, use of arms against the authorities, and violating the Emergency Decree.  In December 2011, they were sentenced to 6 months in prison for violating the Emergency Decree, but were acquitted on the other charges, except one man who was found guilty of robbery and was given another three years in prison.  

Saichon was arrested on 7 June 2010 at Sanam Luang by about 10 policemen.  He testified in court that he was physically abused by the police during and after the arrest, and was forced to confess.

Both Phinit and Saichon have been detained without bail since their arrests.

During the trial, Saichon insisted that he was not the same person as seen in a photograph submitted as evidence to the court by the prosecution, as he has a tattoo on his right arm as can be seen from a photograph taken when he was brought to a press conference by the police.

Image of an arson suspect, left, and Saichon during a press conference held by the police on 8 June 2010 after his arrest, right.

In his testimony as a defence witness, Pol Maj Sa-ngiam Samranrat, 61, a local red-shirt leader in Chumphon province and currently a political employee at the Secretariat of the Prime Minister, said that he had opened a shop selling food and red-shirt merchandise at the Imperial World shopping mall on Lad Phrao, and had hired Saichon as a vendor.  

He insisted that the defendant was at the shop during 12-19 May 2010.

He suspected that Saichon might have been arrested because of his connection to him.  He himself was wanted by the Department of Special Investigation on charges of terrorism after the unrest in 2010, and he had to flee the country.  However, the court had never issued an arrest warrant for him, he said.

Another defence witness was Pol Lt Col Chumphon Bunprayun, Secretary General of the Public Disaster Relief Volunteer Association of Thailand and an advisor on fire prevention to Central Pattana Plc which owns Central World.

He said that during the time of the red-shirt rally at Ratchaprasong intersection, a safety and fire prevention plan was drawn up for Central World.  The mall’s staff included a team of 25 full-time professional firefighters.  It had all the facilities needed to deal with any fire incidents, in accordance with international standards, he said.

He said that at about 2 pm on that day, a group of about 14 people entered the shopping mall by smashing glass windows, but were chased away by the mall’s 180-strong security staff.  About an hour later, another group of about 7-8 people dressed in military-like attire and carrying weapons came in.  The security staff tried to stop them, but were met with bombs thrown at them.  25 policemen who had come to arrest people hiding inside the mall had to withdraw from the place.

A defence lawyer showed him photographs of people who were arrested by police inside the mall which included Phinit.  The witness confirmed to the court that they were those who were hiding inside the mall, were unarmed and were not part of the armed group.    

Phinit Channarong, 2nd defendant

The mall’s security staff and firefighters felt discouraged after the policemen had withdrawn.  They gathered at a parking lot near the Centara Grand Hotel to make their executives aware of the lack of safety in their work.  They eventually decided to leave the premises at about 4.40 pm, the witness said.

He said that at about 7 pm his organization was requested by Central World to go to extinguish the fire, but the place was inaccessible as there was no guarantee of safety from the military.  Not until 10 pm did firefighters manage to reach the place.  

He said that all areas around the mall had already been in military control since the security staff left in late afternoon.

‘If our team had not been forced to leave, a fire of such a scale would have been of little concern.  The buildings were fully equipped.  The water supply was abundant.  All three buildings were connected.  The internal water pressure system was functional.  If we had not been forced to leave, the mall would not have been burnt down.  Those who forced us to leave were those armed people, throwing bombs.  Even the police had to flee,’ he said.

‘Nowhere in this world do authorities not clear the way for firefighters.  Since late afternoon, no one ever cleared the way, just leaving it to burn like that,’ he said.

When a defence lawyer showed him photographs of a man carrying a green container, which was submitted by the prosecution as evidence against Saichon, he said that the green container was a fire extinguisher, and was not a gas container.

In his opinion, those arrested inside the mall were not capable of setting the fire.



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