Corruption’s escape routes closing one by one

opinion November 24, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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Revising the law so that Thaksin Shinawatra can be tried in absentia provides another weapon in the war on graft

There were noble enough intentions in amending the law covering fugitive political officeholders facing corruption and related charges. Procedures to combat graft had to be tightened, and now, in certain circumstances, these fugitives from justice can be tried in absentia. But questions are understandably being raised about making the revised law retroactive, chiefly because its first target will be Thaksin Shinawatra.

The former prime minister becomes the first high-profile defendant under the law that came into effect earlier this month. In developed countries, criminal law is not supposed to be applied retroactively if it hampers the defence of the accused. So a government request for the Supreme Court to proceed with charges against Thaksin – charges it had previously set aside due to his absence from the Kingdom – has raised eyebrows.

Corruption among political officeholders is among the most difficult crimes to combat. That’s why so few face prosecution while they remain in office, and even afterwards, when subsequent governments decline to pursue them for various reasons. If they are eventually challenged, the tendency is to resort to questioning the motives of those seeking to take action against them. If a politician is headed for trial, he suggests the motive is political, and it’s often enough to sway public opinion, even in cases where there is clear evidence of wrongdoing.

The situation regarding ex-premier Thaksin is extraordinary. He faces at least four more graft cases after having fled the country when the first resulted in a guilty verdict against him. Two of the cases are now being revived and could lead to trials in absentia. One concerns his alleged abuse of power in converting a concession fee for mobile phone services into an excise tax that benefited a listed company his family controlled. A former Thaksin Cabinet minister in charge of the matter recently completed a one-year jail term for his role in the affair.

The other case involves a multibillion-baht loan fraudulently granted by state-owned Krung Thai Bank to the Krisada Mahanakorn Group, an action that caused severe financial damage. The responsible former executives of Krung Thai Bank are currently serving long prison sentences.

Efforts to stop corruption, especially among elected politicians, have been relentless in recent years. Previously, such cases proceeded slowly through the judicial system simply because there were so many of them. It could take many years before they reached the Supreme Court, and the longer it took, the less likely it was that justice would be served. The solution was to develop a separate court system and establish a criminal-offence division at the Supreme Court specifically for political officeholders. When the concept was criticised for denying the accused the chance to ask the high court to review rulings, the law was amended to provide that option.

Now we have another amendment aimed at plugging yet another loophole stymieing prosecutors – the inability to try anyone not present in court. Trials in absentia are now allowed under specific conditions when the accused cannot be brought before the judges. 

There is still a long and winding road ahead in the war against corruption. What happens in the several cases involving Thaksin Shinawatra should reveal more about what needs to be done.