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Court's overturn of attempted murder undermines the safety of Thailand's land rights advocate

Surat Thani’s Wiang Sra Provincial Court read the verdict of the Appeals Court Region 8 to acquit suspects in the attempted murder case against Dam On-muang, land rights defender and member of The Southern Peasants' Federation of Thailand (SPFT) and ordered an immediate release of the accused.

(In the middle) Dam On-muang

Lawyers were disappointed with the verdict that overturned the Lower Court’s verdict of guilty. They are preparing to appeal to the Supreme Court, while “Dam” is determined to fight to ensure justice for himself.

At 09.00, at the Wiang Sra Provincial Court, Surat Thani (8 March 2022), Dam On-muang, HRD on land rights of the Santi Pattana Community, the Southern Peasants' Federation of Thailand (SPFT) and other 20 land rights defenders were at court to hear the verdict of the Appeals Court. Somphon Chimrueng who was accused of shooting Dam has challenged the Lower Court’s verdict in which he was convicted and sentenced to 13 years and six months imprisonment for attempted murder and an offence against the Firearms Act, and was ordered to pay Dam 30,000 baht for damages. The accused paid 30,000 baht to 'Dam'.

After the reading of the verdict, Amphon Sangthong, Dam’s attorney, said that the court only focused on the issues in the appeals motion of Somphon, the convicted, and inquired if Somphon had committed the crime of attempted murder as decided by the Lower Court. In the court’s opinion, since Somphon and Uncle Dam lived in the same village, and based on the evidence given by Uncle Dam regarding a statement made by Somphon as well as the condition of the crime scene, decided that Somphon did not have the intention to kill  Dam. The convicted could have shot at Dam right away at the spot close to where Dam was lying down and had the chance to fire more bullets to ensure he was dead. In addition, judging from the bullet trajectory, since Somphon’s bullet hit the bed on which Dam was lying down about 30-50 centimeters from his head, the shell casings found were placed in the direction parallel to the bed, Somphon’s defense thus said that Somphon’s intention was simply to fire the bullets to intimidate Dam. Based on the evidence adduced by Dam, it could not be surmised that Somphon had no intention to murder Dam.  Somphon’s action was therefore not an offence of attempted murder as ruled by the Lower Court. Convinced by the evidence of the accused, the Appeals Court Region 8 ruled to overturn the previous ruling and to acquit the accused of attempted murder.

Dam’s attorney said that what surprised her when Dam is the co-plaintiff in this case, said that the reading of the verdict did not take place just today (8 March 2022). She had been informed that the court has already read the verdict on 18 February 2022 in the absence of the co-Plaintiff, in the presence of only Somphon, the convicted. This was odd as Dam, the co-plaintiff and the victim had not been summoned by either the court or the public prosecutor to attend court to listen to the verdict together with the accused on 18 February 2022. He only received a letter from the court asking him to come to court today (8 March 2022) to hear the verdict. The right of the co-plaintiff, Dam, was violated as all parties ought to be present at all hearings of the Appeal Court. As such, Somphon has since been released on 18 February 2022 and has been living his normal life in his village. 

During the hearing, the court laid down the requirements that any party wanting to appeal the decision ought to do so within one month from the day the verdict was read out in court. For Dam, the verdict was only read out to him today (8 March 2022), but for Somphon, he heard the verdict in February. 

Amphon further said that she personally respected the verdict of the court, although as an attorney of the plaintiff, she was disappointed that the Appeals Court overturned the verdict of the trial court. In her view, the Appeals Court had failed to describe the circumstantial evidence relied on to acquit, The court simply stated that it could happen according to the defense of Somphon said that he only fired the bullets just to intimidate Dam and judging from the bullet trajectory and how they hit the spot where Dam was lying down,  Somphon  (the accused) could have fired more bullets, but did not do so. 

There are several issues we can raise in the appeal motion to the Supreme Court to challenge the verdict of the Appeals Court. We should also monitor the reaction of the public prosecutors and their response to the verdict and whether they will appeal with the Supreme Court or not.

As a co-plaintiff, Dam will definitely lodge an appeal motion with the Supreme Court.  In addition, we shall send a letter to the public prosecutors of both in Bangkok and the province to inquire about their further action regarding the appeal. It is hoped that the Supreme Court will overturn the Appeals Court's decision, and convict the perpetrator to ensure justice for Dam.

Dam said after hearing the verdict that he had no idea that the verdict had been read out to Somphon before he got to hear it. He only knew about it when realizing that Somphon had been discharged from captivity and was living in his village. He felt both shocked and terrified. He did not anticipate that the Appeals Court would rule to overturn the previous verdict to convict. Although he respected the court’s decision, he felt disappointed and worried. Instead of being able to freely till the land and live in his community, he now has to concentrate on his personal safety. He would have to finish dinner early and explore the protocol to keep himself safe. Such precaution had to be taken since the release of Somphon.

As to his own safety, he has no idea as to how many are out there who may kill or harm him, and who they are. He now feels a bit fearful and given his lack of income, it is hard for him to go anywhere else to earn a living. He has to be confined to the same area. He insists on fighting at the Supreme Court to demand justice for himself. 

“I am now 72 and if they only want to take me out, I will give it to them to bring all the matter to a close. I may not live much longer in this world, after all. I only worry that even after my death, the problems will not be gone, and they will come back to interfere with the people in the community. Therefore, I decided to fight it head on” said Dam.

Meanwhile, Pranom Somwong, Protection International in Thailand, said that she was shocked to hear the Appeals Court's decision to overturn the trial court's order and acquit the convicted. More shocking was the fact that the Appeal Court's decision was handed down earlier, without the co-plaintiff and victim even being informed of the 18 February court date. 

She said that she had never encountered such reading of the verdict in this manner before, particularly in the cases concerning life and death and security of a human rights defender. In such cases, safety of the injured party must afford the highest priority including the protection of human rights of the victim, the injured party in a criminal case.

When the Lower Court convicted Somphon and sent him to jail, we felt at least justice had been done. Now that the Appeals Court has overturned the verdict and ruled that Somphon’s intent was simply to fire the bullets to intimidate Dam. But according to the circumstance as explained to us by Dam and the eyewitness, the accused’s action on 20 October 2020 at 01.00 was outrageous and judging from the violent nature of his act, it could be construed as an attempt murder.

He went towards Dam by approaching him so closely in the midst of other eyewitnesses while he was sleeping in his mosquito nets. The fact that the accused missed the target and failed to achieve his objective could also be attributed to Dam’s ability to move away in time to avoid the kill shot. We could not believe that the accused had no intent to attack and/or kill Dam.

We will definitely support Dam's right to appeal to the Supreme Court to ensure that a HRD receives justice and the perpetrator is duly punished. Besides Dam’s attempted murder, there have been at least six assassination attempts of other members of the Southern Peasants' Federation of Thailand (SPFT), in which four were killed including two WHRDs.

No one of the perpetrators have been brought to justice and held accountable for the crime as of today. A big question has to be asked to the police and public prosecutors about how they carried out their investigation and why the criminal procedure code has failed to bring the perpetrators to justice. Why is the government unable to offer protection to prevent the assassination, assassination attempts and harassment of HRDs? If this situation is allowed to continue, who will benefit from it? 

The incidence in this case took place on 20 October 2020 when  Dam On-muang was staying on guard at the entrance of the Santi Pattana Community, Tambon Bangsawan, Phasaeng District, Surat Thani and Somphon fired bullets at him, although he fortunately was able to move avoiding the bullet and survived.

It was believed that  Somphon, the suspect, had some ties with a local palm oil company which is in a land dispute with members of the Santi Pattana Community and the Southern Peasants' Federation of Thailand (SPFT). It was believed that the act was committed to kill the land rights defender, and the Lower Court was right in convicting  Somphon for attempted murder and an offence against the Firearm Act.

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