Thai Tycoon Sent to Prison in Black Panther-Poaching Case

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Thai Tycoon Sent to Prison in Black Panther-Poaching Case Construction billionaire Premchai Karnasuta arrives at a court in Thong Pha Phum, a district of Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province where the nation’s highest court upheld his conviction on charges of hunting endangered wildlife, Dec. 8, 2021.
Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews

A Thai billionaire was hauled off to prison Wednesday after the nation’s highest court upheld his 38-month sentence for hunting endangered wildlife, a rare outcome in a country where the super rich often are not punished for misdeeds.

Premchai Karnasuta, 67, and three of his company’s employees were arrested at the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in February 2018 after park rangers found them with guns and the skinned carcasses of protected wildlife species, including a black panther.

The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s conviction of Premchai on charges of carrying a gun in a public place without a permit, hunting in a wildlife sanctuary, jointly possessing a carcass and harming the forest reserve.

“The summary of the Supreme Court’s ruling is that the three defendants jointly possessed a black panther carcass,” said a court press release, adding that Premchai is to be “jailed for 38 months.”

Premchai, who handed over presidency of construction giant Italian-Thai PLC to his son on Dec. 1, arrived early Wednesday in a luxury SUV to hear the final verdict at Thong Pha Phum court in Kanchanaburi province, 300 km (186 miles) west of Bangkok.

Walking with the aid of a cane, Premchai declined to speak to reporters before hearing during a close-door session because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a court official said.

After the ruling, Premchai was escorted into a Thong Pha Phum prison vehicle parked in the court yard. The vehicle’s windows were covered to shield him from the media and headed to the prison.

The court also upheld jail terms for two accomplices, according to the news release, and ordered all to pay a fine totaling 2 million baht fine (U.S. $60,000).

The fourth defendant was sentenced previously to two years’ probation.

In December 2019, the court of appeal raised Premchai’s original 16-month sentence by 22 months.

Premchai’s lawyer declined to comment to reporters on Wednesday.

The defendant had spoken to reporters during his first trial in March 2019, telling them, “I have a word to say: I apologize.”

Thai authorities arrest tycoon Premchai Karnasuta (sitting) and three others at a hunting camp in Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi province, Feb. 4, 2018. [Courtesy of Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary]

‘Good judicial standard’

An activist from the pro-wildlife group T’Challa said the verdict “sets a good judicial standard.”

“The imprisonment was satisfied. No matter how rich you are, you are punished if found guilty,” activist Tatpong Kaedam told BenarNews. “People believed Premchai could get away with it, but no, it is somewhat surprising.”

Premchai, whose company is valued at $33.4 billion (1.1 trillion baht), faces trials in three other cases ranging from bribing officials at Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary to not arrest him and his accomplices, illegally possessing African ivory and possessing unlicensed weapons. The cases are under appeal. 

He and three of his company’s employees were arrested at Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in February 2018 after park rangers found them with guns and the skinned carcass of a panther and other protected wildlife species, authorities said.

The Thong Pha Phum criminal court found Premchai found guilty of jointly carrying guns in public place, supporting others to hunt wildlife and possessing the carcass of a gray peacock-pheasant.

It acquitted Premchai of possessing the panther carcass – the highlight of the case that ignited national outrage and spurred public skepticism about whether rich Thais are immune from prosecution. The same court found the three other men guilty of possessing the panther carcass.

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.

Premchai’s Italian-Thai Development is the country’s largest contractor company. Its projects include Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and the Bangkok Metro system.

In May 2021, Forbes magazine dropped Premchai from the list of Thailand’s 50 richest people. In 2017, the magazine estimated his net worth was at least $240 million (7.6 billion baht).

Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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