Ongoing cases against politicians to come under newly approved legislation in Thailand

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Cases against politicians finalised by court ‘not covered’, but experts divided on trials involving high-profile figures.

Ongoing cases against politicians will be covered by newly approved legislation on the procedure for criminal cases against politicians when it comes into effect, a drafter of the law said yesterday. This new law, however, will not affect cases in which courts have already issued verdicts, he added.

Udom Rathamarit, a constitution drafter who also sat on the committee vetting the organic law, confirmed yesterday that the new law had no impact on cases already concluded. These included one against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra stemming from his then-wife’s purchase of a coveted land plot in the Ratchadaphisek area from a state agency.

After hearing the case in 2008, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division on Political Office Holders sentenced Thaksin to two years in prison for abuse of power.

“That case has already been decided. The procedures in the new legislation cannot apply to cases that the court has already settled,” the law professor told The Nation. High-profile cases are under way at the court against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom from the Pheu Thai Party.

The bill was approved almost unanimously 176-0 by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) on Thursday. Judges have expressed concern over the clause that allows trials in the absence of fugitive defendants. Atikom Intarabhuti, secretary-general of the Courts of Justice who is a member of the committee vetting the draft law, said trials in absentia are against a universal principle and international practice.

Deputy Attorney-General Khemchai Chutiwong said yesterday that the law could be applied retroactively to existing cases but with exemptions on criminal punishment.As the new legislation is an outline of how cases will proceed, it is automatically applicable to all cases, including those occurring before the bill’s enactment, Khemchai said. Only stipulations on criminal punishments will not be made retroactive, he said.

Khemchai said that while attorneys will not be involved much with the new legal process, it should help speed up the prosecution of politicians involved in wrongdoing, given that they are politically appointed and take office very quickly. He said this would not create a double standard in how politicians are treated compared with civil servants and the private sector with regard to corruption. The existing justice system already punishes anyone committing corruption, he explained, with the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders already in place to rule on wrongdoings by politicians.

“Politicians often have a huge impact on society. They also come and go fast, so we need this bill in place,” he said. “Civil servants and the private sector, on the other hand, often commit less serious graft so they can be prosecuted under the normal process.”

Asked if this standard would apply in the case of fugitive ex-PM Thaksin, Khemchai replied: “Possibly yes. However, the law is aimed at future use and does not target anyone specifically.”

National Legislative Assembly (NLA) member Wallop Tang-kananurak yesterday sought clarification on the draft bill on criminal cases against political office holders being binding on cases in the “judicial process”. While Article 67 in the bill’s provisional clause says the new law will not affect cases that are already in the judicial process, Wallop said it is still not clear what was covered by the term “process”.

Wallop said the law should not apply retroactively to cases concerning former premier Thaksin which have already been ruled on by a court.He said in his interpretation, the new law would not cover cases already adjudicated, including Thaksin’s, but would cover existing cases on which a final ruling has not been issued.

“The president or the spokesperson of the NLA committee vetting the said draft bill should clarify this point,” Wallop said. “The Constitutional Court could also be approached for clarity on the term ‘process’.Meanwhile, Kamnoon Sitthi-samarn, a National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) member, said yesterday that the new legislation would result in “a revolution” in court proceedings on high-profile cases.

There are several clauses that would facilitate court procedures to ensure progress in a case without any needless delays, including absence of the defendants or the statute of limitations. These are addressed in the bill’s Articles 26, 27, and 24/1’s paragraph one and two.

In addition, those who are sentenced but flee the country would be subject to prosecution under paragraph three of Article 241, Kamnoon added. As a result, court cases that are on hold would then proceed following this new law, Kamnoon said.
Kamnoon said the cases concerning a former prime minister on the run would proceed under this law. He was referring to Thaksin.
Even in a case where the court has ruled and delivered a final judgement, the convict cannot escape penalties under this law, he added.
Advocates of the bill argued that the special practice of conducting a trial in absentia and suspending the statute of limitations were aimed at bringing powerful politicians to justice. Political scientist Chamnan Chanruang, however, cautioned yesterday that legislation targeting particular people or professions without taking into consideration the universal principle would undermine the majesty of the law.

“Laws must be based on some principles and standards. If done arbitrarily, people will have no confidence in it,” Chamnan said. He also raised questions about the legislation being prejudiced against politicians. 

Powerful people in other fields such as in public and private sectors were also susceptible to abuse of power, he explained. It was unfair that there was a specific law to deal with a particular profession, the scholar said.


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