A provincial court charged one of Thailand’s wealthiest men Wednesday with possessing carcasses of a black panther and other endangered species as well as hunting in a forest reserve, in a case that has shaken Thai perceptions about whether rich people are immune from the law.
Tycoon Premchai Karnasuta and three co-defendants pleaded not guilty and were released on bail after being indicted on six charges stemming from the alleged poaching of a black panther and other animals at a wildlife sanctuary in Kanchanaburi province.
Premchai, the president of Italian-Thai PLC, one of Thailand’s biggest construction companies, was arrested with the three other men at Thung Yai Naresuan National Park in early February.
Park rangers alleged that the four had the skinned carcass of a panther, as well as a Kalij pheasant and a barking deer – three species protected under Thai law. Authorities released photos of rangers measuring the panther’s pelt, and announced they had seized three rifles and bullets from Premchai.
“Today the court indicted me. The process will go forward,” Premchai told reporters calmly following the four-hour hearing at a provincial court in Thong Pha Phum district.
Asked if he maintained his innocence, he replied, “Yes, as I used to say.”
The businessman and the others were indicted on six counts: poaching in a wildlife sanctuary; hunting endangered species; possessing carcasses of endangered species; attempting to hide those carcasses; hunting in a forest reserve without a permit; and illegal possession of firearms.
The permit and firearms violations each carry maximum sentences of 10 years while poaching carries a maximum sentence of five years.
A prosecutor told reporters that he expected justice to prevail.
“When prosecutors decided to push forward with the proceedings, [which] means we are confident in existing evidence that can prove they are guilty. Today, they all pleaded innocent,” prosecutor Krisada Chuto said.
He said the court hearing would resume May 21 because all of the defendants were not represented by legal counsel.
Besides the six charges in the indictment, Premchai and one of his alleged accomplices were charged with offering a bribe to rangers to not file charges after they were held at the national park.
In addition, Premchai faces charges in a Bangkok criminal court of possessing illegal firearms and illegally possessing four African elephant tusks. His wife is his co-defendant in the latter case, which stems from a search of their home.
The black panther is a subspecies of the Indochinese black leopard, according to environmentalists who said about 900 to 2,500 remain in the wild, of which only 11 percent are the subspecies.
Since the story about the alleged poaching of a panther by one of Thailand’s richest men broke three months ago, environmental activists have called for justice for the slain endangered animals, but many Thais believe that rich and powerful people behave as though they can flout the nation’s laws.
“I agreed with the court, but I am still afraid because in the past, many well-to-do or big-name people got away with their crimes. But the media could play a key role in ensuring a favorable outcome,” Yupathep, a Khon Khaen-based business man, told BenarNews.
Premchai’s company built Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and the Bangkok Metro system. In May 2017, Forbes magazine listed him among Thailand’s 50 Richest, with a net worth of at least U.S. $240 million (7.6 billion baht).