Justice on Trial: Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul and the Thai Constitutional Court

On 9 February 2011, the Appeal Court ruled ruled that the original conviction by the Criminal Court in the lese majeste case of Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, also known as “Da Torpedo,” was null.  Before anyone becomes hopeful that the Appeal ruling may have come from a recognition within the Thai judiciary that the lese majeste law is unjust, the question has been cast by the Court as one of procedure.  Darunee was arrested in July 2008, after making comments with alleged lese majeste content in them during rallies on Sanam Luang. After being held in pre-charge detention for the longest period possible (84 days) under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), she was then charged with six counts of lese majeste.  After close to nine months of pre-trial detention, Darunee was tried in a brief, closed trial in June 2009. On 28 August 2009, she was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

What has come to be at stake is the closed nature of her original trial. Despite the wishes of her lawyer otherwise, the trial was closed to the public for reasons of “national security.” While the CPC stipulates that this is possible, the 2007 Constitution guarantees citizens a right to an open trial. In Darunee’s case, when the prosecutor requested a closed trial and the judge approved this motion, she and her lawyer filed a motion to have the point examined by the Constitutional Court. However, the Criminal Court decided not to forward the motion and kept the trial closed. The Appeal Court has now ruled that this was an improper action by the Criminal Court judge and the Constitutional Court will examine whether or not the closure of Darunee’s trial was a violation of the Constitution [and her rights as a citizen under it]. The designation of “national security,” and what might be a threat to it, not unlike the definition of lese majeste leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

Yet even if this issue is examined by the Court as a procedural question, the implications for the meaning, and practice, of justice in Thailand are potentially profound. While this is already clear to Darunee, who remains in detention despite the annulling of her conviction and the attempt of her brother and lawyer to bail her out, examination of her case as well as the relevant sections of the CPC and the 2007 Constitution makes the potential implications unavoidably urgent. As one of the panelists in a seminar on constitutional courts held at the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University last Thursday  pointed out, the work of the judiciary is always deeply political, even/especially when it claims to stand aside from politics.

When Darunee was formally charged, it was with six counts of lese majeste, or violating Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years” [“ผู้ใดหมิ่นประมาท ดูหมิ่น หรือแสดงความอาฆาตมาดร้ายพระมหากษัตริย์ พระราชินี รัชทายาท หรือผู้สำเร็จ ราชการแทนพระองค์ ต้องระวางโทษจำคุกตั้งแต่สามปีถึงสิบห้าปี”].  The crime in question was one of thought and words – the prosecution alleged that Darunee made comments that slandered individuals within or with connections to the institution of the monarchy.  These comments were made during speeches she made in support of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra at a rallies of the nascent red-shirt movement. The speeches in question added up to a total of  55.11 minutes; the reason this level of detail is known is because plainclothes police intelligence officers went to the rallies and made mp3 recordings of her speeches and the information was later printed in the Thai press. As I wrote previously for New Mandala, when Darunee was sentenced to 18 years in prison for these statements, the court presented the logic for the severe sentence through a recursive, repetitive interpretation of the intention behind her speech. Despite her argument otherwise, the court argued that her speech intended to harm, and was therefore illegal under Article 112.

When the Criminal Court judge decided to close her trial to the public, the allegedly harmful – and therefore potentially dangerous – nature of her comments was cited as the reason.  Article 177 of the CPC notes that “The court has the power to order a secret trial when it is suitable either via the court’s own authority or the request of either party in the case. It must be for the benefit of the peacefulness and order or good morals of the people, or to protect secret state information related to the safety of the country from being known by the people”  [“ศาลมีอำนาจสั่งให้พิจารณาเป็นการลับ เมื่อเห็นสมควรโดยพลการหรือโดยคำร้องขอของคู่ความฝ่ายใด แต่ต้องเพื่อประโยชน์แห่งความสงบเรียบร้อยหรือ ศีลธรรมอันดีของประชาชน หรือเพื่อป้องกันความลับอันเกี่ยวกับความปลอดภัยของประเทศมิให้ล่วงรู้ถึงประชาชน”]. A few questions come to mind:  Given that Darunee was being prosecuted for words she uttered in public, did she and her words remain threatening even when handcuffed and imprisoned? In her case, what was at stake: peacefulness and order, good morals, or secret state information? In cases where the Court itself orders a closed trial, what is the origin of this authority? What precisely constitutes the “good morals of the people”? Finally, is it ever suitable for a trial to be secret?

With regards to this final question, Articles 29 and 40 of the 2007 Constitution are very clear.  Article 29 reads: “The restriction of rights and liberties of a person as recognized by the Constitution shall not be imposed except by virtue of law specifically enacted for the purpose determined by this Constitution and to the extent of necessity and provided that it shall not affect the essential substances of such rights and liberties”  [การจำกัดสิทธิและเสรีภาพของบุคคลที่รัฐธรรมนูญรับรองไว้ จะกระทำมิได้ เว้นแต่โดยอาศัยอำนาจตามบทบัญญัติแห่งกฎหมาย เฉพาะเพื่อการที่รัฐธรรมนูญนี้กำหนดไว้และเท่าที่จำเป็น และจะกระทบกระเทือนสาระสำคัญแห่งสิทธิและเสรีภาพนั้นมิได้ ]. Part 2 of Article 40 of the 2007 Constitution, which addresses the rights of citizens in a judicial process, notes the following about these rights:  “shall consist at least of the right to public trial; right to be adequately informed of the facts and to inspect documents, right to present one’s facts, defenses and evidence, right to object to judges, right to be considered by the full bench of judges, and right to be informed of the reasons for a ruling, judgment or order” [ซึ่งอย่างน้อยต้องมีหลักประกันขั้นพื้นฐานเรื่องการได้รับการพิจารณาโดยเปิดเผย การได้รับทราบข้อเท็จจริงและตรวจเอกสารอย่างเพียงพอ การเสนอข้อเท็จจริง ข้อโต้แย้ง และพยานหลักฐานของตน การคัดค้านผู้พิพากษาหรือตุลาการ การได้รับการพิจารณาโดยผู้พิพากษาหรือตุลาการที่นั่งพิจารณาคดีครบองค์คณะ และการได้รับทราบเหตุผลประกอบคำวินิจฉัย คำพิพากษา หรือคำสั่ง]. Article 40 is unequivocal about the right of citizens to an open trial. The crucial phrase in these two articles then seems to be in Article 29: “the extent of necessity and provided that it shall not affect the essential substances of such rights and liberties.”. What constitutes necessity? Perhaps most importantly, what are the essential substances of the rights and liberties that are guaranteed in the 2007 Constitution?

For those who follow the case of Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, the coming months will be important ones. Regardless of how fast the Constitutional Court may move, Darunee should be granted bail immediately. Surely being held in prison after one’s sentence has been vacated is a violation of essential rights and liberties. In a broader sense, I would make the claim that anyone concerned with the Thai Constitution and the workings of the Constitutional Court should closely follow the process and outcome in this case. While the decisions of the Court about political party dissolution have been highly-publicized and analyzed as having profound effects on the future of Thai politics, the very nature of rights, liberties, good morals, national security and the power of the court to decide when and how those should be engaged publicly is at stake in this case. This is not only a case of procedure — justice is on the line.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald may be contacted at lizziefitzy@gmail.com