By Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Wildlife authorities filed new charges Wednesday against one of Thailand’s wealthiest men, accusing him of poaching a black panther and other endangered animals, in a case that has ignited controversy over privileges enjoyed by the rich and powerful.
Premchai Karnasuta, the president of Italian-Thai PLC, one of Thailand’s biggest construction companies, was arrested in early February with three others at Thung Yai Naresuan National Park in western Thailand. Park rangers found the businessman with the skinned carcass of a panther, as well as a Kalij pheasant and a barking deer – three species protected under Thai law – in the wildlife sanctuary, authorities said.
Authorities then released photos of rangers measuring the big cat’s pelt, and they seized three rifles and bullets from Premchai. Officials filed nine charges, including illegal hunting and illegal possession of carcasses of protected animals.
On Wednesday, police also brought charges of bribery and possession of guns and elephant tusks against the tycoon.
“No, I didn’t kill the black panther. Today, I denied all three charges,” Premchai told reporters in Bangkok on Wednesday. “I am feeling uneasy that everyone views me in negative way. … But I think all truth will reveal [itself] in the court.”
The additional charges stemmed from allegations that Premchai had offered to bribe his way out during his arrest at the wildlife sanctuary, a World Heritage site in Kanchanaburi province.
Premchai, 63, reported to the police’s National Resources and Environmental Crime Division in the Thai capital on Wednesday to acknowledge the three new charges. These included illegal possession of four African elephant tusks, which police allegedly found when they recently searched Premchai’s house in Bangkok.
He has been temporarily released after posting a bail of 300,000 baht (U.S. $9,677). He faces imprisonment of four years or more, if found guilty, a legal expert told BenarNews.
In justice, ‘no rich and poor’
The businessman’s arrest unleashed a public debate over privileges enjoyed by the nation’s richest citizens, despite Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s green light for a thorough investigation.
Environmentalists and animal-rights groups questioned whether Thailand’s military government could punish the nation’s well-connected citizens.
Graffiti artists sprayed Bangkok’s deserted walls with paintings of the black cat and the Thai catchphrase “The black cat will not die for free” has become a protest symbol on social media.
But despite the controversy, deputy national police chief Srivarah Rangsibharmanakul said his officers would perform their duties “in line with the framework of laws.”
“In justice, there is no rich or poor. There are only wrongdoers or innocent. When we have solid evidence, we proceed with prosecution,” Srivarah said. “Social media has no influence over us.”
Premchai’s company built Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and the Bangkok Metro system. In May last year, Forbes magazine listed Premchai among Thailand’s 50 Richest, with a net worth of at least U.S. $240 million.
The black panther is a subspecies of the Indochinese black leopard, according to environmentalists.
“The subspecies … is rare, there is an estimation of about 900 to 2,500 still left in the wild, of which only 11 per cent are black,” Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, told reporters in Bangkok.