Thailand’s Supreme Court on Wednesday declared former prime ministers Somchai Wongsawat and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, along with two associates, not guilty of causing the deaths of two people and injuries to nearly 500 more during protests at parliament in 2008.
A nine-judge panel ruled for Somchai, the 69-year-old brother-in-law of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the three other defendants, saying the demonstration was not peaceful and therefore was not constitutionally protected. The two demonstrators were killed when riot-control police fired tear gas into the crowd that had stormed the parliamentary grounds on Oct. 7, 2008, when Somchai served as prime minister.
“The demonstrators aroused their fellows to besiege the parliament compound, therefore they were not peaceful. ... The defendants did not have any intention to order the police force to harm or cause fatality among demonstrators,” one of the judges read from the verdict.
The verdict stated that anti-riot police dispersed the demonstrators properly and they could not predict the level of damage that tear gas could cause in such a tense situation.
Prosecutors have a month to consider appealing the verdict.
Somchai and Chavalit, who served as his deputy, along with then-National Police Bureau chief Gen. Patcharawat Wongsuwan and then-Metropolitan Police commander Lt. Gen. Suchart Meaunkhaew co-ordered officers to disperse members of the Yellow Shirts or the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) who surrounded the parliamentary compound on that day on October 2008, the court found.
Yellow Shirt members are loyal to royalists including the junta, which seized control of the government in a May 2014 coup, while Red Shirts, a pro-democracy group, align with Somchai and others linked to Thaksin.
Chavalit served as prime minister during the Asian economic crisis of 1997, and Patcharawat is a younger brother of current Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan.
The four men left the courthouse through backdoors after the verdict, and were greeted by a few dozen Yellow Shirt supporters who booed and chanted: “Murderers, murderers!”
‘Police shot at me with tear gas’
Before the verdict was handed down, a man who had been in front of the Metropolitan Police Bureau near parliament on Oct. 7, 2008, described how an explosion from a tear-gas canister tore off his right leg.
“The police shot at me with tear gas. They did not give us a warning. I have waited years to learn whether the court would find them guilty,” Tee Saetiew, 73, told BenarNews.
PAD leader Weera Somkwamkid said the acquittal could be used to set a standard for crowd control.
“This verdict might set a standard in which authorities are not guilty for controlling demonstrators. People would not dare protest in the future,” he told BenarNews.
Tee Saetiew (center) who lost his right leg in the 2008 crackdown, speaks to defendant Suchart Meaunkhaew (in suit), prior to the verdict, Aug. 2, 2017. (Nontarat Phaicharoen/Benar News)
Thailand has been through two dozen coups since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Thaksin took power in 2001, but was booted out by a military coup five years later, after being accused of corruption and disrespecting the monarchy.
After he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison in 2008 for graft tied to a land purchase, his Thai Rak Thai Party disbanded and he has been in exile abroad since.
Thaksin and his successors capitalized on popular policies to gain support from grass roots people including farmers who represent more than half of eligible voters. After an interim military-sponsored government ended and the country held new elections in 2007, the party returned as the People Power Party.
Two party leaders became prime minister – Samak Sundaravej followed by Somchai – but both were forced to resign.
Somchai replaced Samak on Sept. 18, 2008, but his term in office lasted only 75 days.
Somchai, who married Thaksin’s sister, met with protests by thousands of conservative PAD demonstrators, who accused him of being the former prime minister’s puppet. As he prepared to give a speech to parliament on the morning of Oct. 7, 2008, Yellow Shirt protesters stormed the compound.
Anti-riot police were able to escort cabinet members and parliamentarians into the parliament. The officials ended up trapped while protesters tried to break in, forcing the officials to flee over a back fence.
Meanwhile, police efforts to disperse the crowd lasted for hours and left two people dead and 471 injured, according to the government. Yellow Shirt supporters said a dozen people died.
Yingluck Shinawatra, a younger sister of Thaksin, was elected prime minister in 2011, but was forced from office by a military coup in 2014. She faces a verdict on Aug. 25 on charges of criminal negligence related to a multi-billion-dollar rice-subsidy scheme, which her government had implemented and could face 10 years in prison, if convicted.