special report: Political favour tips against UDD since the coup, writes Nattaya Chetchotiros
The police’s unveiling of the so-called “men in black” has been a game changer for red shirts embroiled in the legal consequences of 2010’s political violence.
It appears to tip the balance back in favour of the other side of the political conflict, represented by Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and former Democrat secretary-general, Suthep Thaugusban, whom the red shirts hold to account for the bloody consequences of the violent clashes four years ago.
The Democrat-led government, which was trying to hang on to power against a red-shirt led protest movement, claims the other side hired the men in black to shoot soldiers and innocent protesters, stoking a civil war to ensure it lost power.
The red shirts led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship have always denied the men in black’s existence, though several recent developments – including the arrests of five men police identify as the men in black – have upset their case.
The sense of unease among the red-shirt cause only increased last month with the appointment of Suwana Suwanjuta as Department of Special Investigation chief, who was hand-picked by the coup-maker the National Council for Peace and Order.
The red shirts fear a change at the top could have a knock-on effect on the investigation into the previously elusive men in black.
Both the red shirts and the other side – represented by Mr Abhisit Vejjvajiva and Phra Suthep – are locked in legal disputes connected to 2010’s political upheaval.
Mr Abhisit and Phra Suthep were indicted for allegedly ordering the soldiers to shoot the red-shirt protesters.
The pair appeared to be losing ground, particularly during the previous Yingluck Shinawatra government when the DSI, headed by Tarit Pengdith, made no mention of the men in black in its probes against the former premier and his deputy.
Mr Tarit carried on working as DSI chief despite the change of government. He was a member of the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (Cres) which cracked down on the red-shirt protesters.
Some argue that under the Yingluck government the red shirts gained ground in their calls for justice against the Democrat pair. However, crucial turning points came after the May 22 coup with the identification of the men in black, which followed the Criminal Court’s dismissal of the case against Mr Abhisit and Phra Suthep, and the changing of the guard at the DSI.
On Aug 28, the Criminal Court dismissed the case against the ex-premier and his deputy, saying it did not have the authority to try the case and the jurisdiction rested with the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions. The case now goes to the National Anti-Corruption Commission which is investigating the pair for abuse of authority, rather than murder.
If indicted by the prosecution, they will be tried in the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions.
The case is now treated as a political one based on alleged abuse of power. The lawyers representing the red-shirts have appealed against the Criminal Court’s decision not to pursue the case.
The tide of political favour went against the red shirts again with the appointment of Pol Gen Somyot Phumpanmuang as national police chief. In early September he brought before the media five people who admitted to being the men in black.
Kittisak Soomsri, 45, Chamnan Phakeechai, 45, Preecha Yuyen, 24, Ronnarit Suricha, 33, and a 39-year-old woman, Punika Chusri were accused of using war weapons during the 2010 red-shirt protests in Bangkok which resulted in the deaths of soldiers and 21 others, including a foreign journalist during the Khok Wua intersection clash.
Red-shirt UDD co-leader Veerakarn Musikapong asked if the suspects were not in fact scapegoats, a claim Pol Gen Somyot denies.
The naming last week of Ms Suwana as head of the DSI comes as another setback for the red shirts.
She succeeds Pol Gen Chatchawal Suksomjit, senior adviser to the Royal Thai Police Office, who led the DSI for about five months after taking over from Mr Tarit.
Winyat Chatmontri, a lawyer representing the men in black, said the legal proceedings involving the men would have gone more smoothly had Mr Tarit still supervised the DSI.
The DSI is taking care of most aspects of the investigation into the men in black while delegating the probe specific to the weapons which they allegedly possessed during the protest to the Crime Suppression Division.
The CSD forwarded the case to the prosecution on Sept 15.
Mr Winyat said the men in black retracted their earlier confession, which they said was made under duress. His clients told him the authorities tortured them.
“Soldiers visited the men in their cells and asked why they claimed they had been assaulted in custody. This shows that mistreatment persists as we speak,” he said. The police dismissed the torture claim.
Mr Winyat and the Free Thai Legal Aid group on Friday petitioned the DSI to ensure fairness in the men in black probe.
He said no one in his lawyers’ team knows Ms Suwana personally, but it could be reasonably assumed the military government would want to install someone in the DSI who they can “control”.
Mr Winyat insisted that even if a directive had been issued that might dictate the course of the investigation, he was certain no one could twist the facts and the truth.
Ms Suwana, however, made it clear she has received no instruction from the government on how to conduct the probe related to the men in black.
“I’m aware some people might think of me as mere political conduit, but I can tell you now that I work with no preconceived agenda,” she said.
She said criminal investigations might not be her strength. But she has many legal experts at the department to help her.
Meanwhile, Bundit Siripan, lawyer to Mr Abhisit and Phra Suthep, said the retraction of the men in black’s statements would not stop authorities from tracking down the perpetrators of political violence.