The construction tycoon had barely been sentenced when authorities began making excuses as to why the billionaire might not be able to serve his landmark prison sentence.
Within hours after the Supreme Court sentenced Premchai Karnasuta, the head of giant Italian-Thai Development Plc., to 38 months in prison for killing a critically endangered black leopard in a nature reserve, the head of Thailand’s Corrections Department began making excuses, playing right into the public narrative that Thailand’s elite can get away with anything.
Corrections Director-General Ayut Sintoppant said even before the sentenced was handed out Dec. 8, a doctor from Thong Pha Phum Prison Hospital gave Premchai a checkup.
The doctor found that Premchai had many chronic diseases including hypertension and fatty liver and also had just undergone non-critical cataract surgery, Ayut said.
Doctors would monitor him during the three weeks he had to spend in quarantine before being sent to a normal cell, Ayut said. However, the billionaire’s chronic conditions could lead doctors to “make relevant decisions in the future”, he said.
That, of course, hints that Thailand’s elite would again conjure up an excuse to bail out one of their own despite breaking laws that would send the average Somchai to jail for life.
“It’s unfortunately likely that they will find a way to make him come out early (e.g. a pardon), but [at least] he will definitely spend a night in prison,” one online commenter noted following the court ruling, echoing a common sentiment.
Environmentalists, rights activists and many among the general public had been shocked yet pleased when the Supreme Court not only upheld a lower court’s conviction of Premchai, but increased his initial prison sentence from 16 months to three years and two months.
He had been convicted back in 2019 by a lower court of several crimes such as trespassing and hunting illegally in Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in central Thailand where the tycoon and two of his assistants were discovered by park rangers in February 2018 in the possession of animal carcasses.
Premchai and his party were found to have killed several animals, including a black leopard. Two of his accomplices also received similarly lengthy prison terms in the decision.
The case caused widespread outrage among Thai pro-democracy activists for whom the killing of the big cat became a rallying cry against a culture of impunity among the rich and powerful in one of the world’s most economically unequal nations where the top 1 percent own two-thirds of the country’s wealth.
But they and outraged conservationists expressed doubt at the time that the businessman would ever be convicted because he had been a beneficiary of lucrative government contracts.
The day before the Supreme Court’s verdict was announced, hundreds of environmentalists and rights activists gathered in central Bangkok demanding justice for the poached big cat. They listened to fiery speeches by activists and displayed artworks featuring a black panther.
“In Thailand there is one set of rules for rich people and another set of rules for everyone else,” one protester, who wore a T-shirt with a print of a black panther on front and back, told a reporter for UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.
“This case is not just about someone poaching illegally in a protected forest. It’s about rich people feeling entitled to do whatever they want.”
This story includes reporting from UCA News and the Thailand News Agency.