One of Thailand’s richest tycoons testified Wednesday at his closed-door trial on charges that he and other defendants poached a black panther and other animals at a national wildlife reserve in western Kanchanaburi province early this year.
Premchai Karnasuta, the president of construction giant Italian-Thai PLC, spoke to reporters as he walked with a cane to the provincial court in Thong Pha Phum district to testify and listen to another witness take the stand. Premchai was the first witness to testify as the trial’s defense-testimony phase began, court officials said.
“Excited, excited,” said Premchai, who looked relaxed as he walked toward the courtroom before Wednesday’s hearing, after arriving in a luxury SUV.
Hours later, he had little to say as he emerged from the court.
“I’m tired. ... Let it be the court’s consideration,” he told reporters.
Prosecutor Somjet Ammuaysawat told BenarNews that the defense phase consisting of eight witnesses, including the defendants, would conclude by year’s end.
“I don’t know when the court will call for a verdict,” Somjet said.
Premchai and his three alleged accomplices were arrested at Thung Yai Naresuan National Park in early February. In May, they 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.
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 ammunition from Premchai.
Premchai last appeared in court when his trial opened in late November. He has since skipped proceedings involving dozens of prosecution witnesses, citing health and job-related reasons.
The court called for closed-door hearings because the case has been widely reported and officials expressed concern that reporting on testimony could cause contempt of court or affect the judicial process, according to defense lawyers, a prosecutor and an observer.
In general, closed-door trials are reserved for national security or royal defamation cases.
Reporters who waited outside received a note from a court official that Premchai had testified. Another defendant, Yong Dodkreu, was the only other witness in Wednesday’s session.
“Premchai is getting better and is ready to give his accounts,” Kijja Ali-Isho who represents Premchai’s co-defendant, told reporters while Premchai’s lawyer avoided talking to media because the court had asked him to be mindful of the case’s sensitivity.
Premchai and the others were indicted on charges of 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. Permit and firearms violations each carry maximum sentences of 10 years while poaching carries a maximum sentence of five years.
The Thong Pha Phum court also charged Premchai and one of his alleged accomplices with offering a bribe to rangers to not file charges. In addition, Premchai and his wife face charges in a Bangkok criminal court of possessing illegal firearms and illegally possessing four African elephant tusks.
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.
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 people, with a net worth of at least U.S. $240 million (7.6 billion baht).