Charges dismissed against alleged killer of land rights activist

A Provincial Court has dismissed charges against a man accused of taking part in killing a southern land rights activist, citing weak evidence.

The Provincial Court in Wiang Sa District of Surat Thani Province, on Tuesday, 15 March 2016, dismissed charges against Santi Wanthong, a suspect in the assassination of Chai Bunthonglek, a 61-year-old member of the Southern Peasant’s Federation of Thailand (SPFT) from Khlong Sai Pattana Community in Chai Buri District of Surat Thani.

Santi was accused of being an accomplice in the assassination, allegedly acting as a driver for the gunman. He was indicted for murder, violation of the Gun Control Act, and carrying weapons in public.  

There are two other suspects in the case, one of whom is accused of being the gunman. However, the prosecutor has not yet indicted the two as their identities are still unclear because one of them reportedly covered his head with a black hood when staging the crime.  

According to Kritsada Khunnarong, attorney for the plaintiff, the judge said that the assassination of Chai happened at night. Therefore, the description of the suspects’ identities given by two witnesses who were at the crime scene was not reliable.  

The judge added that the witnesses only saw the suspects briefly from a distance of about 10 metres.

In addition, the court ruled that there is insufficient evidence to indict an individual believed to be the person who ordered the assassination because phone records only show that Santi contacted the individual one month before the assassination.  

After the ruling was read, however, the court ordered Santi to be detained for 30 days in case the plaintiff asks to appeal the verdict.      

Chai was shot dead at his house with a .357 gun by two gunmen on 11 February 2015.

He is the fourth member of the SPFT from Khlong Sai Pattana Community to be shot dead.

Earlier in 2010, Somporn Pattanabhumi, a former SPFT member from the community, was assassinated. In 2012, Montha Chukaew and Pranee Boonrat, human rights defenders and SPFT members, were shot and killed while travelling to a local market in the district.

There have been repeated reports of members of the community being threatened and intimidated by unidentified groups of men.

Khlong Sai Pattana community has been engaged for many years in an ongoing land dispute involving Jiew Kang Jue Pattana Co. Ltd., a palm oil company.

In 2007, the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ALRO), a government agency which owns the land, sued Jiew Kang Jue Pattana Co. Ltd. for land encroachment. ALRO won the case in the Court of First Instance and the Appeal Court. However, the case is currently before the Supreme Court. Until the dispute is resolved, the government has granted the Khlong Sai Pattana community full entitlement to the 1355 rai (535 acres) in question. The community currently occupies 200 rai (70 acres) of the plot.

Since the conflict erupted, Jiew Kang Jue Pattana Co. Ltd. has filed several suits against SPFT members based on allegations that their campaigns are affecting the company's business interests.

Chai Bunthonglek (far right) and villagers of Khlong Sai Pattana Community in Surat Thani province at a rally to protect the community's land on 2 October 2014. The banner reads: ‘We will stand for justice to protect land to the end. Stop evicting the poor. The Khlong Sai people will fight’ (file Photo)