Who killed Italian photographer Fabio Polenghi?

Picture by Thilo Thielke (Der Spiegel)

Will the death of independent Italian photographer Fabio Polenghi become one of the numerous mysterious events of modern Thai history, from King Ananda’s death in 1946 to the Saudi Jewel Saga (1989 to today)?

Fabio Polenghi was killed by a bullet on 19 May 2010, just before 11.00 am, as he was running along with other journalists and some Red shirts (the anti-government demonstrators) to escape live rounds fire. On that day, the Thai army, ordered by Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government to “clear” the Rajprasong commercial area of Bangkok occupied for two months by the Reds, was advancing on Rajdamri road and firing indiscriminately, according to eyewitnesses, on demonstrators armed with slingshots and Molotov cocktails. In the course of his run, Fabio was hit by a bullet and collapsed. Carried by colleagues and demonstrators to the Police Hospital, he died later from his wound.

On 21 May, two days after the Fabio’s death, the Police Forensic Institute did a forensic examination. The day after, Fabio Polenghi’s body was cremated in a simple and emotional ceremony attended by his younger sister Isabella, his friends, and his colleagues. Three months later, the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) – the “Thai FBI” – which is in charge of the investigation of Fabio’s killing, still refuses to publish the forensic report. “The investigation is not finished yet”, says Colonel Naras Savestanan, the deputy-director general of DSI. He says he cannot answer basic and crucial questions such as those about the kind of bullet which killed Fabio, the angle and distance of shooting and the location of the killer. Other important questions deal with the location of military sharpshooters who killed many demonstrators on that day as well as the location of the mysterious Black shirts – the armed wing of the Red movement. But also here, the questions find no answers. Or only very vague ones.

The DSI, a special police unit which has been put in charge of the case given its importance and sensitivity, has not yet published any information on the circumstances of the killing after supposedly investigating the case for three months. Why is the DSI, considered by Red shirts as very close to Abhisit’s Democrat party, so embarrassed by this case which has attracted the attention of the foreign media and international organizations like the Committee to Protect journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF)? To publish the truth on the circumstances of the photographer’s death would apparently be an issue for the government and the Thai military. General Anupong Paochinda, originally from the 21st Infantry Regiment (Queen’s Guard) has been Army chief since 2007. He was appointed not long after the bloodless and flowery coup of 19 September 2010 which overthrew then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the popular and corrupt former police officer turned telecommunications tycoon turned politician. This October, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, brothers in arms of Anupong – and the brain behind the crackdown on the Reds in May – will take over from Anupong as Army chief. Thus for at least seven years, the elite unit of the Queen’s Guard will control the most powerful position of the Royal Thai Armed forces.This is something never seen before in the modern military history of the Kingdom. And this situation is creating ferocious feelings of jealousy within the officer corps.

Who killed Fabio Polenghi? A two weeks investigation by colleagues and friends of Fabio has cast some light on the circumstances of his killing. Fabio was killed by a bullet in an area where the Black Shirts were using mostly M 79 RPG – one of which severely wounded Canadian reporter Chandler Vandergrift – and M 16 assault rifles. On 19 May, these Black Shirts were occupying the Rajdamri Skytrain station, roughly 425 meters from the place where Fabio was hit. An M 16 is not very precise beyond a distance of one hundred meters, unless equipped with a sharp shooting vision device. On the other side, on the same day at around 11:00 am, hundreds of soldiers, deployed for the “clearing operation”, were advancing on Rajdamari, coming from the Saladaeng intersection and across Lumphini Park which covers the south-eastern flank of the road.

In parallel, military sharp shooters, positioned on buildings surrounding Rajdamri road, were also shooting at Red shirt demonstrators who were occupying the road. “It is more likely that the Italian journalist has been hit by fire from advancing soldiers at the ground level, on Rajdamri road. I cannot see clearly why sharp shooters would particularly target him”, says a journalist who was on the military side on Rajdamri on 19 May. The type of bullet which killed Fabio, if it is revealed publicly someday, is not the most crucial element as Black shirts and military personnel have used some similar weapons. The most important elements are the entry point of the bullet, the description of the wound and the shooting angle, which could cast some light about the location of the shooter. Without these data, there will be no certainty on the identity of who killed the Italian journalist.

After Fabio was hit on 19 May, man of Asian appearence rushed on the Canon 5 D camera Fabio had dropped when he collapsed. The man took the camera then dragged and helped to carry Fabio out of the fire zone. An investigation among Thai and Foreign journalists shows that this mysterious man is not a journalist, nor a photographer. He could just be a person who seized the opportunity of the chaos created by the shooting to steal a camera worth 4,000 Euros.