Extension of service denied to judge who joined pro-democracy protests

From 30 September, Wichit Leethamchayo will no longer serve as a Supreme Court judge after he was found to have joined pro-democracy protests, the Judicial Commission unanimously ruled on 25 July. An insider source told Prachatai exclusively that the ruling deviated from precedent. Critics have questioned whether the same standard should have been applied to Methinee Chalothorn, who was appointed first woman President of the Supreme Court despite joining a pro-coup protest. 

In the Thai legal system, the Judicial Commission can extend the service of any judge after their retirement age of 65. They will be called Senior Judges and the Office can renew the position on an annual basis after a performance review. This should have been so in the case of Wichit Leethamchayo, a Supreme Court judge who last year became head of the Court's division responsible for issuing writs of certiorari.

Wichit is a high-profile judge. In one famous case, he passed a death sentence on 19 drug offenders in light of the quantity of drugs found by the police and the damage it could cause to society. In an ongoing case, he was one of 9 judges who accepted a case against 89 suspects accused of corruption in the construction of futsal stadiums in 17 northern and north-eastern provinces back in 2012, resulting in the immediate suspension of 3 MPs in the current government. 

However, Wichit will no longer serve on the Supreme Court as of 30 September after right-wing groups accused him of showing support for pro-democracy protests on at least two occasions in 2021. According to a broadcast by the far-right outlet Top News, Wichit was spotted talking to pro-democracy protesters calling for the release of political activists detained for demanding monarchy reform at the Criminal Court on Ratchadaphisek Road on 22 December. 

After the broadcast, Maj Gen Rienthong Nanna, an ultraroyalist who also supports Putin's invasion of Ukraine and proudly nicknames himself "Pu-thong", also revealed that he had filed a complaint with the Judicial Commission in March last year accusing Wichit of showing " anti-monarchy behaviour" in front of the Supreme Court on 13 February. Rienthong also claimed that Wichit posted anti-monarchy comments on Facebook using the name Wichit Lee. 

Asked by a reporter to comment on the case in December last year, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said that the matter should be left to the Judicial Commission and that any citizens can file a complaint demanding an investigation. This was exactly what happened during the next 7 months. 

Section 34 of the Code of Judicial Conduct says "a judge must not be a committee member, member, or officer in any political party or political group, must not take any action or join in any action to support, publicize, or influence the election of any member of parliament or any political representative, and should not take any action committed to any political party or political group other than exercising the right to vote." 

The Judicial Commission, presided over by President of Supreme Court Piyakul Boonperm, ruled that Wichit committed only a minor disciplinary violation. As a result, his retirement pension and any promotion was suspended for 1 year. But despite the violation being minor, Wichit is no longer allowed to extend his service as a Senior Judge in the next fiscal year. The departure of Wichit also means a new judge needs to be selected for the futsal stadium case, where hearings will soon begin on 9 Aug, but it remains unconfirmed whether there will be any change in the schedule. 

According to a source in the judiciary close to Wichit's disciplinary procedure, the ruling was not in any way usual. In the normal process, a sub-committee would investigate the matter and then pass on a recommendation to the Judicial Commission for a ruling. The Judicial Commission rarely rules against the recommendation or imposes a more severe punishment than the sub-committee's recommendation.  

However, in the case of Wichit, the sub-committee recommended that Wichit, despite having committed a minor violation, continue to serve as a Supreme Court Senior Judge, but the Judicial Commission, agreeing that the violation was minor, unanimously voted to deny an extension of service for Wichit as some judges on the Commission called out his "anti-monarchy" stance. The source also said that the evidence for the minor violation was the same as that used to justify the anti-monarchy claim, resulting in denial of extension.

"This kind of thing is unprecedented," said the source. "It is just a minor violation of discipline, so how can it be inappropriate to continue as a Supreme Court judge?" 

Claiming that Wichit was among the judges who wrote the highest number of verdicts in Thai judicial history, the source said that a majority of judges disagreed with the ruling but could not do anything about it. He also claimed that a majority on the Judicial Commission were on a waiting list for promotion so did not have the courage to protect Wichit. He said he revealed the information to let the public know, and the Judicial Commission must have an answer for the public. 

"This kind of thing is really unacceptable," said the source.

As the news about Wichit spread, a number of critics questioned whether Methinee Chalothorn should have received the same treatment. For example, Atukkit Sawangsuk, a political columnist, captured the public sentiment in a 26 July Facebook post saying that compared to Wichit, her case was a "double standard" and "self-humiliation" for the court.  

After Methinee was appointed President of the Supreme Court in September 2020, pictures circulated on the internet showing her at a right-wing anti-government PDRC protest which led to the military coup in 2014. The group now has many of its members in the cabinet or organizing yellow shirt protests. Prachatai has tried to contact a number of divisions in the Court of Justice, including the Judicial Commission, but none said they had the authority to give an answer. 

Somchai Preechasilpakul, a legal scholar, wrote an article for 101.World which referred to the Judicial Commission's minutes confirming that it had acknowledged Methinee’s participation in the anti-democracy protest in July 2020, 3 months before the appointment of a new President of the Supreme Court in October. Yet the Commissioners voted 13-1 to approve her appointment with several judges giving the opinion that being at a protest site does not mean that she showed support for the protest. Worasit Rojanapanich, an external examiner for the Commission, said that her participation was "graceful" for a judge because she acted out of love for the nation and the monarchy. 

In December 2020, a group claiming to be “anonymous judges” with the assistance of Jaran Ditapichai, an exiled political activist and former National Human Rights Commissioner, spread information accusing Methinee of ordering courts to deny bail to pro-democracy protesters and collecting money from the courts which she could donate to appease the King in the hope of getting a seat on the Privy Council. Prachatai cannot independently verify these reports. 

In Thailand, the judiciary has come under increasing pressure as activists are kept in pre-trial detention on political charges including royal defamation, sedition, and violation of the emergency degree. In these cases, bail is often delayed or repeatedly denied for reasons unsupported by the law. Monarchy reform activists Nutthanit and Netiporn are being held in pre-trial detention on royal defamation charges despite declining health after going on a hunger strike. The 60-day strike makes theirs the longest in the past 8 years.  

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