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First He Acquitted 5 Men of Murder, Then He Shot Himself

YALA, Thailand — The Thai judge’s verdict was not guilty, five men spared the death penalty or life imprisonment. Then the judge reached into his robes, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the courtroom.

In a 25-page manifesto that he read aloud to the courtroom on Oct. 4, Kanakorn Pianchana, a chief judge of the Yala trial court, laid out the existential dilemma that would lead him to aim a pistol at his chest and fire.

There was not enough evidence for murder convictions for the five Muslim defendants from Thailand’s insurgency-plagued deep south, he said, but his superiors were pressuring him to impose capital punishment anyway.

“My words might be as light as a bird’s feather but my heart is as heavy as a mountain,” he said as the defendants and their families looked on. “Return the verdicts to the judges. Return the justice to the people.”

Mr. Kanakorn survived the shooting and was taken to a hospital in the southern Thai city of Yala, with injuries to his spleen. He was released on Tuesday.

But his dramatic courtroom act has drawn new attention to the simmering tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand, where more than 7,000 people have been killed by militants over the past 15 years and countless more have had their rights diminished by military rule.

“This judge is living evidence of the failure of the justice system in the south,” said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, the director of Deep South Watch, a research center on the conflict in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, which were once a Malay Muslim sultanate before being annexed by the Buddhist Thai kingdom in the early 20th century.

Since 2004, a shadowy Muslim insurgency with inchoate aims has terrorized members of both faiths with roadside bombings, shootings and grenade attacks. Teachers, judges and religious leaders have been assassinated. The Thai armed forces have responded by turning the region into what Duncan McCargo, the director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and an expert on southern Thailand, calls “a military colony.”

Less than a couple hundred miles from the powdery beaches where foreign tourists frolic, the deep south region bristles like occupied territory. Armored personnel carriers idle in the parking lots of 7-Elevens. Men in Muslim prayer caps are searched at checkpoints with sandbag fortifications.

“The situation in the deep south is one of the many things that Thailand is in collective denial about,” Mr. McCargo said. “It’s testimony to the failure of the Thai military to understand the nature of the conflict or to even admit to the conflict.”

In his courtroom speech, Mr. Kanakorn, who took his oath as a judge 17 years ago, accused the army of using forced confessions to condemn Muslims. He said he tired of having his verdicts subverted by superiors with little interest in the evidence.

In the Thai court tradition, regional chief justices can review judges’ verdicts before they are announced. Such a system invites abuse, legal experts said.

Mr. Kanakorn said that he had carefully considered the case of the five men, who were accused of killing five others in June last year, and concluded there were insufficient grounds to convict. But the regional chief justice of a part of southern Thailand sent “a secret letter ordering me to punish the five defendants,” he said, without elaborating why his boss might have done so.

“This is the crisis time when people lose faith in the court of justice,” Mr. Kanakorn told the courtroom on Oct. 4.

Originally, Mr. Kanakorn was supposed to issue his verdict in August. He told the defendants and their family members that he wanted to acquit the men but was being pressured from above to convict, according to four people who were present at the hearing.

The solution, he said, was to delay the ruling, to allow the state to produce compelling evidence for a conviction. Nearly two months later, however, they had come up with nothing, he said, apart from further threats against him.

“Today, if I follow the regional chief justice’s order, I will not be a good judge,” Mr. Kanakorn said in his statement. “I’d rather die than live without dignity.”

The relatives of the defendants who had gathered said they had no idea what was about to happen. The first hint of something wrong was when Mr. Kanakorn kicked the court reporter and other judicial officials out. He ordered a guard to lock one door. The judge locked the other and rammed a chair against it.

He set up a pair of cellphones on tripods for a social media feed and began to speak. One of the phones began buzzing with calls. Mr. Kanakorn ignored every one, witnesses said. People began rattling the locked door handles from the other side. He continued talking for about an hour.

“He told us, ‘Bear with me, don’t get bored because this is important,’” said Sakinah, the mother of one of the defendants, who is being identified by only her given name because she is worried about her safety. “I listened but some of it was hard to understand. It was very long.”

The judge talked about the meager salary of his profession, about $ 30,000 a year for a chief judge, and how easy it was to use money to have a verdict changed.

Then, Mr. Kanakorn, a Buddhist, looked straight at the defendants and their families.

“This is the end,” he said, according to four people who were in the courtroom. “I will not alter my verdict because giving death sentences would be too much bad karma.”

Mr. Kanakorn turned and bowed in front of portraits of Thailand’s monarchy. He recited a judicial oath.

His hands disappeared into his robe. Sakinah heard the breath of a bullet, like in the movies but softer somehow.

“His face was so full of stress,” said Rohanee, the sister of another defendant, who is also being identified by her first name only. “He looked totally exhausted.”

The Thai military has orchestrated a dozen successful coups in modern Thai history, most recently in 2014. Elections this year returned Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of the junta, to the post of prime minister.

For many Muslim residents of the deep south, the military’s enduring footprint has only hardened sentiment against the Thai state. Mr. Prayuth’s government has been accused of undercutting efforts to find a political solution to the insurgency by dismissing officials who want to negotiate with the militants.

“The cost of all this security is very high,” said Mr. Srisompob of Deep South Watch. “People are more and more frustrated because it does not end.”

The families of the five defendants say they do not understand why the men are not free yet, given their acquittals. They have heard that the prosecution will appeal Mr. Kanakorn’s verdict, something that must happen within 15 days.

None can afford the roughly $ 16,000 bail to bring the men home.

“In this lifetime, it’s almost impossible to find that kind of money,” said Mariyam, the wife of one defendant.

Mr. Kanakorn is being investigated for having broken the law by using phone cameras and a weapon in the courtroom.

“Justice doesn’t exist here,” Rohanee said. “I’ve learned that.”

Sitting in her darkened home, the monsoon rains sending the smell of wet earth inside, Ms. Sakinah said she wondered how the judge was recovering in his hospital bed.

“I want to write him a poem with the most beautiful words,” she said. “I want to tell him that he is in the hearts of the people of the deep south.”

Source: NYT > World News

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