Daily Archives: May 27, 2007

The Thai Court System


When I was younger, I once sat on the jury of a murder trial. It lasted for about seven days. I had always been fascinated by courtroom dramas and after watching “Twelve Angry Men” I fancied myself as Head Juror. Alas, I was only 19 at the time and no-one voted me for that position. Although it was a serious case, I did enjoy my time listening to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. The evidence was overwhelming and I think we all knew what the verdict would be quite early on in the case. On the final day, we were sent to deliberate the verdict just before lunch. There wasn’t really much to discuss and I think we could have gone back in straight away with a guilty verdict. However, out of respect for the accused, we decided we should at least put on a show of having a deep and meaningful discussion. We were also hungry and decided to order the free lunch and give our verdict after we had sufficiently rested.

In Thailand, the Courts of Justice don’t quite work in the same way. In the Criminal Courts, there are always at least two judges and no jury. Although it may seem to be unfair not being judged by a panel of your peers. I think it is probably better if amateurs, like myself, didn’t have so much of a say in the lives of the accused. But then, that leaves a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the judges. A few days ago I was in court for the trial of a defendent who had been accused of attempted murder. This was a Westerner who was being put on trial in a foreign land. Everything was conducted in Thai. At the beginning of the case, there was a discussion between the judges and the defence team as to whether there should be translations for the defendent during the trial. The judge was of the opinion that it would slow the proceedings down too much and asked the lawyer to only translate what she felt was necessary. Really, John was lucky to have a lawyer that spoke English. Another prisoner that I spoke to said he couldn’t afford his own lawyer. So, the court appointed one for free ,who unfortunately didn’t speak any English. He said there was a court interpreter, but all he said was “You, come here. Sit down. Stand up. Sign here” etc. Other than that, he had no idea what was going on or even how much time he was sentenced to. In fact, he was the last to know.

The courtroom wasn’t very large. There were probably about six or so of these rooms on this floor alone. At the front was the raised platform where the judges sat. Above them is a portrait of H.M. The King. Below it is the symbol of the court, a downward pointing dagger with scales balancing on it. In front of the bench sat the court clerk. On the judges right was the table for the prosecution. On the left was the table for the defense. In the middle of the room, facing the judges bench, was the chair and table for the witness. The room was roughly split in half with a low railing. Behind this were the benches where members of the public and interested parties sat. In Thailand, courts are usually open to the public. So, in theory, if you are respectfully dressed, you could go and watch a trial. Just remember no cameras are allowed and you should turn off your mobile phone.

At about 9.35 a.m., John was escorted into the courtroom by a policeman. He was barefoot and chained at the ankles. A piece of string was attached to the chains which enabled him to pick them off the floor as he hobbled along. The policeman told him to sit down on the front bench next to where I was sitting. I asked him whether he remembered me and he said “yes” but he didn’t remember my name.  While we were waiting for the judges to arrive, I tried to have a conversation with him. I asked some general questions about the food at the prison as well as the number of prisoners in his cell. He wasn’t very responsive and it was clear that he didn’t really understand what was going on. It was like he had retreated within himself. He didn’t really know what had happened at the airport when he was arrested. He told me that the British Embassy were hopeless and that they hadn’t visited him. I told him that they had been to see him at least four times. He then said he didn’t remember. This wasn’t an act. This guy needed serious medical help. I also noticed that his forehead seemed to be swollen. I asked whether he had been hit, but he said he didn’t know. The lawyer said she would ask the prison to do a proper medical. It might not be anything. However, if it is not treated, it could be life threatening. I am not a medical expert, but pressure on the front of the brain like this could explain to his memory lapses and his general demeanor.

Shortly later, the two judges arrived through their private entrance at the front of the court. No-one announced their arrival, but everyone stood up anyway. They wore a black robe with a dark velvet edging around the neck and down the front. People didn’t wai the judges, but bowed instead. The public prosecutor was sat on my left. I recognized her instantly as she was also in Gor’s trial. The first day was reserved for the prosecution. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution and she has to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In the morning, she called three witnesses: the victim, the arresting officer and a witness to the crime. Each one was called forward where they then put their hands together in a prayer like gestured and promised to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. As in Western courts, the prosecutor asked a series of questions and then the defence were allowed to cross examine. However, there were some notable differences.

In Western courts, there would be a stenographer who would make a record of everything that was said. However, in Thailand, this is left up to the judge. In front of him was a tape recorder. This wasn’t to record the witness. What happened is that after the witness had answered the question, the judge would then paraphrase what he had just said. But, he didn’t do this for everything. Only what he deemed to be relevant. During the cross-examination, I could see the defence lawyer pausing before he asked each question so that the judge could have time to record the answer. However, sometimes the judge didn’t bother to record anything which obviously annoyed the defence. He just told them to ask the next question. The witness had said he was in hospital for four days. However, under cross examination, he said he was only in ICU for the first day. The judge didn’t record that.

I also noticed that the judges participated more in the questioning of the witness. Sometimes they asked questions that they felt the prosecutor should have asked. Or a question to clarify an answer. Like in my previous trial, the prosecutor sometimes left the courtroom during cross-examination. Although there were two judges, there was only one lead judge. The other was there as support. Every now and then he would change tapes and the court clerk would then take this to type up. At the start of each tape he would record something and then quickly rewind it to see if it recorded properly. The last witness of the morning was supposed to be the doctor. However, he didn’t turn up which seemed to annoy the judges. After a few phone calls, they decided to postpone the next trial date. The prosecution were supposed to finish on this day and then the following week the defence team would have their turn. But, as the doctor couldn’t come the trial was put off for just over two weeks.

It is doubtful that the verdict will be read out on that day. From previous experience, I would say it would take them two to three weeks before they set a date for the verdict to be read. By about 12 p.m., the court clerk had finished typing up the testimonials from the witnesses. These were then read out in court. Each witness was then asked if what had been read was a true account. They said it was. Then each relevant party had to sign these statements. At first John didn’t want to sign this document. It was all written in Thai. He said that he was being framed and didn’t want to be a part of all this. The lawyer managed to persuade him in the end by saying that he was only signing to witness this document. Not to say what was written was the truth.

It is really difficult to say which way this case will go. It was good that the witnesses contradicted themselves over certain details. I think it was also in the favour of the defence that the police hadn’t collected the video from the surveillance cameras. Which is strange as the police decided to charge him with the more serious crime of attempted murder. The defence will argue that it should be bodily harm which carries a sentence of no more than two years. I will be going to court again next month in order to give morale support to John. I will also let you know the verdict which will probably be announced at the end of June. Obviously, as this is an on-going case, I will not give any exact details of the case, nor the names of the people involved.