Is the Thai Justice System Fair? The Mushroom Case

The Abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, the largest temple in Thailand, has been issued an arrest warrant for failing to appear to hear charges for allegedly laundering money and accepting stolen money from Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative. On June 16, 2016, his supporters staged a peaceful protest by meditating in front of all the temple gates in anticipation of the arrival of DSI - the investigative unit in pursuit of the abbot.

Many people have questioned the actions of the abbot’s supporters who aren’t allowing him to be tried by the courts. These observers state that the courts should decide whether he is guilty or not - not his supporters - and if Abbot Dhammajayo is truly innocent, his supporters shouldn’t be afraid to let the courts decide.

A recent court case unearthed, however, clearly illustrates just how the Thai judicial system is not always fair and just, and in this case example, the justice system can be a heartless example of what happens when an opportunity presents itself before the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

In the Thairath Online article, “Mushroom Scavenging Turns into Forest Encroachment - Jailed Couple Pleads for Help”, published on December 18, 2013, a couple was found to have been scavenging for mushrooms, but was later charged with forest encroachment and sentenced to 30 years in prison, despite all evidence to the contrary. This Mushroom Case bears a poignant resemblance to Abbot Dhammajayo’s case as he is being persecuted on charges that have not yet gone to court.

Read the full article below for details and you can decide for yourself whether this type of case is likely to take place again in Thailand or not.

mushrooms by montillon.a - Flickr CC Attribution

Thairath Online, 18 December 2013 09:00, Thai language source:

Social media users have been in uproar about the bizarre police actions that took place when a couple was arrested for trespassing on forest lands to scavenge for mushrooms. They were convicted for forest encroachment and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Relatives pled for help and affirmed that the couple were not guilty as charged. They believed the couple were being made scapegoats for ones who actually encroached on forest lands. The relatives reached out to the online community for support

Mr. Udom Sirison, age 51, and Ms. Daeng Sirison, age 48 – a married couple living at 73 Moo 4, Nonsa-ard Subdistrict, Huaymeg District, Kalasin Province – were charged with trespassing and illegal logging on protected forest reserves. The incident occurred on July 12, 2010. The court sentenced the couple to 30 years in prison, which was reduced to 15 when they pleaded guilty. This case is currently with the Supreme Court.

On December 17, at Studio 8, RS Corporation LLC, Ladprao Road, Mr. Songkran Atchariyasup; President of the Network for the Protection of the Nation, Religion, and King; together with Mr. Udom (released on bail on December 12) held a press conference asking for justice. After appearing in the “Pak Pong” show, Mr. Songkran said that relatives of the aggrieved confirmed that Mr. Udom and his wife did not violate any trespassing laws by entering the 72-rai (28 acres) of protected national forest.

“I examined the evidence that the investigating officials and forest officers submitted to the court,” said Mr. Atchariyasup. “I do not believe that the couple broke any laws.”

The couple pleaded guilty to the officers because they thought they were being investigated for picking  mushrooms in a protected area. However, when they were formally charged, the charges brought against them were for illegal logging in a protected national forest.

Relatives filed a complaint with the Human Rights Committee. However, as the case was already undergoing investigation in the courts, the relatives sought help from the Network for the Protection of the Nation, Religion, and King.

Mr. Songkran said that after examining the court files, he found that the case was unusual.

This led him to ask the Supreme Court to examine the evidence and to interrogate the investigative officers from the state, including the forestry office, investigative unit, and prosecutor’s office. At this moment, all documents from the investigation are with the Supreme Court who is aware of the case. Everyone involved has been interrogated. Even the prison director of Kalasin province interrogated Mr. Udom and his wife’s action and trustworthiness to determine if they’ve committed a crime.

The forestry official said that they didn’t find the couple at the location of the incident, only their motorbike. When asked how their motorbike got there, they said they went to collect mushrooms. When they went in for questioning, it was still about collecting mushrooms; there was nothing about trespassing. That’s why the couple confessed, which reduced their sentence in half - from 30 years to 15 years.

Recently, the truth has been surfacing that the couple are indeed scapegoats. Multiple parties are lending their hands to help. Mr. Udom was granted bailed at 500,000 baht, and on December 23, 2013, Ms. Daeng will seek bail as well. Parties in support of the couple are asking the Supreme Court, after reviewing the case files, to allow Ms. Daeng to be released on bail so she can care for her ailing husband. They are also asking the Attorney General to look into this case.

“Mr. Udom is hearing impaired and can barely walk. He is still ill and recuperating from being hit by a commercial truck. He suffers hemorrhagic bleeding in the brain and had been in jail for 1 year and 8 months. He was temporarily released while his case was filed with the Supreme Court, indicating that he had received some measure of justice.

The Supreme Court currently holds all facts. Their review of the police investigation revealed that the case  only had to do with the scavenging of mushrooms. There was no logging involved. The police interrogation of the two suspects occurred immediately, without the counsel of a lawyer, and they were eventually sentenced to prison.

This case was brought to my attention while the case was with the Supreme Court. Thus, I asked the Court to conduct their own investigation, as the case seemed suspicious and abnormal. All previous investigations were about scavenging for mushrooms, so why were they charged with forest encroachment?

“This case is an example of how public officials carry out their duties, and their use of power and law,” said Mr. Atchariyasup. “My question is, who used this couple as scapegoats for investors?”

Mr. Udom confirmed that he only scavenged for mushrooms; he never participated in logging. He was jailed even though he is not guilty. He has been praying for help—if he really is guilty, may death come to him. However, if he truly is not guilty, may he survive. He felt victimized and unlucky that the courts sentenced him to prison. He mourns for his wife who is still in jail, and has not yet been released on bail.

When he was still in jail, he could only write letters saying there’s nothing to worry about, he’s doing well and has accepted his fate. He’s eating, and he’s healthy. The truth was that he could not accept it and broke down in tears every day. Today, he’s so happy that many people have lent their support. He says he’s begun to see hope.

Information about this case has been posted on various social networks. Many comments have been written pleading for justice from the courts and help from the online community.

Some people say that it was not the court’s fault, but rather the fault of the prosecuting party who issued the case and the investigating officers.

Photo source: mushrooms by montillon.a - Flickr CC Attribution