What explains the judge’s attempted suicide?

The judicial establishment and extreme right wing have tried to belittle a judge’s suicide attempt, but his 25-page verdict has kick-started a campaign for reform of the judiciary. 

Dr. Wisoot Binlateh, a representative of the Sheikhul Islam Office of Thailand, paid a visit to Khanakorn.

Source: Dr. Wisoot Binlateh

Khanakorn Pianchana, 49, a judge in Yala Provincial Court, shot himself in the chest in his courtroom on Friday 4th October while facing the King’s portrait after he dismissed a case against 5 people charged with murder. He was taken to the ICU of Yala Hospital, and is now out of danger and recovering in hospital with a damaged spleen.

News of the incident spread all over the media along with speculation as to the reasons why the former piano teacher turned judge shot himself. Among these were personal stress, a desire for reform, defiance against meddling in court decisions and the chronic conflict in the Deep South. Many are waiting for the results of the investigation by a committee established by the Office of the Judicial Commission on 7th October. The results will be released within 15 days.

Meanwhile, the establishment and the right wing tried to belittle the judge’s suicide attempt, but the 25-page verdict kick-started a national campaign for reform of judiciary, a factor which may lead to positive developments in the Deep South. 

Personal stress?

Khanakorn posted on his Facebook page before the verdict that he may face being fired without a pension because he exposed the meddling by the Regional Chief Justice in the decision-making of the Court. He also gave an account number asking for donations to his wife and daughter. 

Khanakorn Pianchana

The 25-page verdict also included a statement calling for the government to provide fairer salaries to judges nationwide because judges do not get overtime pay despite usually working overtime. They are also not allowed to have a second job, making them vulnerable to job insecurity under threat from their superiors. 

The spokesperson of the Court of Justice reportedly said Khanakorn shot himself out of personal stress without further explanation. Though full information is lacking, an observation can be made that the personal stress may have been caused by job insecurity arising from defiance against the irrational meddling into court decisions by the authorities. 

Court meddling and the Deep South

The focus turned to Permsak Saisrithong, the Chief Justice of Region 9, who Khanakorn accused of writing a secret order to change a court verdict. The accusation was written in the verdict itself as a violation of the Constitution. Permsak said on 10 October that he was sorry for the miscommunication, but he never intended to interfere with the court’s decision.

The defendants in this case include Sukri Muse, Sapae-ing Sato, Wae-asae Waeyuso, Massan Jeduere, and Abdullah Masamo. They were accused of killing 5 people in June 2018. However, Khanakorn wrote in the verdict that all the evidence which pointed to murder came from interrogations while the defendants were detained under martial law, which is in force in the Deep South. 

Detention under martial law should not have been applied in this case because it did not involve terrorism or the insurgency, wrote Khanakorn. Under martial law, detention can be for a 7-day period, renewable for no longer than 30 days. The evidence obtained was thin, and Khanakorn insisted on setting them free despite the disapproving opinion of the monitors and the secret order.  

On 5 October, Thai Rath reported that Col Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for Internal Security Operations Command Region 4, confirmed that the case was treated as a criminal case, not a security case. However, he denied any military involvement in meddling with the case.  

Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, leader of the opposition Prachachart Party with a stronghold in the south, paid a visit to Khanakorn on 5 October. “I encouraged him not to think of losing hope in this profession. I’m afraid that he will resign, so I said do not lose hope. We need people like this in every profession. He said thank you and nodded to me because I begged him to keep fighting in this profession so that the people can depend on him,” said Wan Muhammad. 

On 8 October, Dr. Wisoot Binlateh, a representative of the Sheikhul Islam Office of Thailand, paid a visit to Khanakorn at Yala Hospital, insisting on the importance of an impartial judiciary in the Deep South, reported BBC Thai. “Justice is the strongest step to end violent incidents. Without justice, violent incidents will continue. Because the feelings of people in the area long for fairness, so judges like this are a necessity that we should have,” said Wisoot.

Dr. Wisoot Binlateh, a representative of the Sheikhul Islam Office of Thailand, paid a visit to Khanakorn.

Source: Dr. Wisoot Binlateh

Not the first time

In the verdict Khanakorn also wrote that he had experienced this kind of meddling before when he worked in the Pattani Court . At that time, 3 military officers were accused of murder. The Regional Chief Justice threatened to use his power under the current law to transfer him out of the region unless Khanakorn got into a car sent by the Regional Chief Justice and met him right away. Khanakorn agreed to go by himself and not in the car. 

In front of the Regional Chief Justice, he was harshly criticized over the format and writing style of his verdict - a tactic to weaken his confidence. The Regional Chief Justice asked him to “correct” the verdict according to the guidelines, in which the verdict would change the murder to an act of necessity. Khanakorn compromised on the format and writing style, but not the content.

The Regional Chief Justice kept harassing him and threatened to set up a disciplinary committee to investigate him over the case. Khanakorn insisted on the verdict until the Regional Chief Justice sent him a letter saying that a judge must “understand the officers.” 

Khanakorn intended to set the first officer free, to sentence the second to jail for life for murder and the intention to frame a victim as a militant, and to sentence the third to 13 years because of his confession. However, the second defendant’s sentence was reduced to 13 years out of Khanakorn’s fear as specified by the Regional Chief Justice. 

Law reform

Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, Future Forward Party’s Secretary-General, held a press conference stating that he had obtained the 25-page verdict. Piyabutr also said Khanakorn had sent a message on Facebook of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to ask about the party’s stance on judicial independence.

The Future Forward Party called for a release of video footage in the courtroom to check if Khanakorn's phone was taken and if the important data was deleted by the ISOC. The party also demanded that the trial law be amended. 

The House Standing Committee on Independent Organizations, State Enterprises, Public Organizations and Funds, led by Jirayu Huangsap of the Pheu Thai party, has announced it will call Permsak Saisrithong to a hearing on 17 October as part of an effort to amend the trial law, officially known as the Law for the Organization of Court of Justice.  

ilaw said that according to the current law, a judge must send a draft verdict of "important cases" to the Regional Chief Justice to make it in consistent with the precedents. A Chief Justice must also report to the President of the Supreme Court with regard to the case. 

"Important cases" include any case involving national security, terrorism, drugs, crimes with severe penalties, civil cases concerning property worth more than 5 million baht or more than 10 million baht when a financial institution is the plaintiff, contempt of court, prominent persons, international relations, great public concern, and the Deep South insurgency.

The campaign has been attacked by the pro-government media and MPs. Parina Kraikup, a Phalang Pracharat MP, posted an accusation on Facebook that the bullet used was for training purposes and the attempted suicide was a set-up to sabotage the judiciary and divert attention from the sedition case against the opposition leaders for campaigning for constitutional amendments. “A bullet used for training does not even kill a dog, how can it kill a person?” asked Parina. 

Kanok Ratwongsakul of Nation TV also criticized the judge on Facebook for revealing confidential documents to a political party and asked about the connection between Khanakorn and the Future Forward Party as it might be a tactic of the party to divert attention away from its court case. 

However, the campaign did gain international support. The International Commission of Jurists released a statement that “the apparent suicide attempt of a judge in southern Thailand highlights the need for urgent reform of the judiciary to improve its independence” 

“The ICJ has worked for years with the judiciary in southern Thailand to improve the administration of justice, especially by addressing problems such as the improper admission of evidence and problematic evidence-gathering by security forces countering armed groups,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia-Pacific Director. “This case again shows how misuse of emergency decrees in southern Thailand has aggravated the political pressure exerted on judges.”

“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...,” said the press release.