The apparent suicide attempt of a judge in southern Thailand highlights the need for urgent reform of the judiciary to improve its independence from political interference, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said today.
Judge Khanakorn Pianchana, Vice Presiding Judge of the Yala Provincial Court in Thailand’s restive southern region, reportedly shot himself in the chest following his delivery of a verdict on 4 October in a case in which he alleged political interference in his judicial functions. Judge Khanakorn is currently hospitalized in critical condition.
“This unfortunate incident again shows the need for sustained reforms of law enforcement and particularly of the independence of the judiciary in Thailand,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Asia director.
Judge Khanakorn had alleged in a 25-page note that he was ordered in confidence to rewrite his ruling exonerating five suspects of murder charges - a decision he had allegedly reached on the basis of lack of sufficient evidence. The five have had been detained and interrogated under special security laws in force in the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand.
Under Thai law, if a superior judicial officer disagrees with a ruling of any judge, he or she must express such disagreement in writing and is forbidden from speaking to a judge in confidence to reverse the ruling.
“The ICJ has worked for years with the judiciary in southern Thailand to improve the administration of justice in southern Thailand, especially by addressing problems such as the improper admission of evidence and problematic evidence-gathering by security forces countering armed groups,” Rawski said. “This case again shows how misuse of emergency decrees in southern Thailand has aggravated the political pressure exerted on judges.”
Today, the case was submitted to the Office of the Judicial Commission for its consideration. The Commission, chaired by the President of the Supreme Court, comprises of qualified members who are judicial officers of each level of the Court. Consequently, the Commission passed a resolution to set up a Sub-Committee comprises three of its members to investigate into the allegations.
Particularly because Judge Khanakorn’s claim involves several senior judges in active services, the Sub-Committee set up by the Commission to investigate the allegations must therefore be independent institutionally and functionally, at all stages of the investigation. Their mandate should be broadened to look into whether there is wider pattern and practice of interference beyond this case.
Judge Khanakorn presided over a trial involving the alleged murder of five people in Yala province in 2018. Following the killing, authorities arrested five suspects who were charged with murder, secret association, conspiracy and gun-related offences. If convicted, three out of five defendants could be sentenced to death.
The five suspects were reportedly detained and interrogated under much-criticized special security laws which remain in force in the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand – i.e Martial Law and Emergency Decree. The ICJ has repeatedly criticized how the Martial Law confers upon military authorities the powers to arrest and detain any person without a warrant for up to seven days for interrogation and questioning and does not require detainees to be brought before a court at any stage of their detention. The ICJ has also repeatedly analyzed and criticized the Emergency Decree, which breaches international law and standards, by allowing authorities to detain suspects, with the leave of the Court, for up to 30 days. The law does not require a detainee to be physically brought before the Court during this period.
Information submitted to the court as evidence in this case had reportedly been obtained from the suspects during detention periods prescribed under Martial Law and the Emergency Decree. Judge Khanakorn noted in his statement that he was of the view that any information obtained during this period should not be admissible because rights protections had not been afforded to the suspects who had been detained under security laws, as they are provided to suspects in other criminal trials. This position had reportedly led to the disagreements between the judge and his supervisor over the case ruling.
The ICJ has repeatedly expressed concern on the use as evidence of information obtained during interrogation under emergency laws in criminal proceedings of security-related cases, in the form of witness statements or inquiry reports from interrogation officials. The ICJ has called on Thailand to review existing standards in all special security laws and relevant articles in the Criminal Procedure Code regarding the admissibility of evidence that are not compatible with international fair trial standards.
Judge Khanakorn also described in his statement that certain evidence needed to have been ruled inadmissible as it had not been collected by competent authorities but by volunteers who were not competent or specialized in evidence collection.
Judge Khanakorn further asserted that interference in his judicial functions had also occurred in 2018 when he had been under pressure to reduce the sentence of three military officers who had been found to have shot villagers to death.
The right to a fair hearing in judicial proceedings before an independent and impartial court or tribunal is guaranteed in several human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand is a party. The right is also enshrined in section 188 of the 2017 Constitution of Thailand.
International standards also reaffirm that judicial independence requires not only the independence of the judiciary as an institution from the other branches of government; it also requires judges being independent from each other. Such freedom from undue influence that might come from other judges is guaranteed in several internationally accepted standards, including Principle 1.4 of the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct and its Commentary; article 3 of the Universal Charter of the Judge; and article 2 of the Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary.