Experts Warn of Political Interference After Thai Court Quashed Senator’s Arrest Warrant
Judicial officials in Thailand revoked an arrest warrant for a powerful senator on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, according to a leaked testimony that experts cited as evidence of political interference in the country’s judicial system.
The seven-page testimony from Royal Thai Police Lt Col Manapong Wongpiwat was made to a member of the Judicial Commission, an entity responsible for internal investigations in the Court of Justice. It describes how Manapong was allegedly pressed into revoking the arrest warrant he had requested for Senator Upakit Pachariyangkun.
The leaked testimony confirms details first revealed by OCCRP and Prachatai in October, and provides a blow-by-blow account of the backroom machinations that allowed Upakit to escape arrest at the last minute.
The testimony describes how the director of the Criminal Court summoned Manapong, who had written up the warrant, as well as the judge who approved it. The director reportedly told Manapong to cancel Upakit’s arrest warrant, saying he was under pressure from an unnamed “superior.”
If the allegations in Manapong’s testimony are true, they show that the constitutionally-enshrined independence of judges is under threat, according to Thammasat University law professor Munin Pongsapan.
“If the fact is that the court executives, or heads of the court who oversee administration, were trying to interfere or pressure a judge who has power to rule, then this is something very worrying,” he said in an interview on the television program Kom Chad Luek.
Upakit has been implicated in a case that involves laundering drug money by purchasing energy from a Thai state-owned company, and sending it over the border to be sold in Myanmar, according to an indictment that was first reported by OCCRP and Prachatai in December.
Upakit has said the allegations against him are “fake news.”
Upakit’s son-in-law, a Thai-American named Dean Gultula, has been charged in the case, along with Tun Min Lat, a well-connected Myanmar tycoon and arms dealer. They were arrested on September 17 when Thai police and other agencies swooped in at dawn on several locations in Bangkok.
At 11 a.m. on October 3, an arrest warrant was also issued for Upakit, according to Manapong’s testimony. Two and a half hours later, he said, he received a call ordering him to bring the warrant and related evidence to the court. When he arrived, he was questioned by the court's director, deputy director and secretary general.
The deputy director suggested that Manapong would “overthrow the authority of the legislature of the country” if the senator was arrested. The deputy director then called a high ranking police officer and handed the phone to Manapong.
Shortly beforehand, Manapong had also received a call from his commanding officer who asked him why he had written up the warrant. Manapong told both officers that he had evidence that Upakit was involved in the drug and money laundering scheme.
Manapong testified that he was told to file a request to the court to revoke the warrant, but he replied that he could be prosecuted if he did so. The judge who approved the warrant was then brought in to revoke it.
The deputy director allegedly told the judge that Criminal Court regulations provided that an arrest warrant against an “important” person could only be issued after consulting court executives. The judge responded that he did not know of any such provision, but agreed to revoke the warrant anyway.
Once the deputy director and secretary general of the court left the room, the director asked Manapong if he wanted to add something to the revocation order. Manapong replied that he would like a note added that would prevent the investigation against Upakit from being halted completely.
The judge then wrote a memo telling the police to issue an order summoning Upakit to hear the charges within 15 days. If he did not show up, an arrest warrant could be requested. However, Upakit was not summoned to hear the charges, and no new warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Manapong said in his leaked testimony that cancelling Upakit’s arrest warrant could affect the “faith of the people in the judicial process.” He added that cancelling the warrant on the ground that Upakit was an important person undermined the principle that “individuals are equal before the law.”
On 10 February 2023, Manapong and the other officers involved in charging Upakit were transferred to other posts in an apparent attempt to prevent them from continuing their investigation into Upakit.
Manapong has confirmed to local media that the document recording his testimony is genuine, adding that he did not know how it was leaked.