Somkid reflects on long battle to prove his innocence
April 21, 2014 00:00
Retired senior police investigator Pol Lt-General Somkid Bunthanom spoke to Nation TV after being acquitted recently of involvement in the disappearance and presumed death of Saudi businessman Mohammad al-Ruwaili 24 years ago. Here are excerpts.
How do you feel about the acquittal?
I had been waiting for this day for the past 20 years, and it proved that I was innocent, based on evidence, which I as a career policeman rely on as the basis of justice in the legal process. I need to inform Ruwaili’s relatives now that the issue [of his disappearance] has been an international dispute, not a political issue that I would want to be linked to.
[I understand that] Ruwaili’s relatives thought I became involved because I had been assigned by my superiors to investigate the murders of four Saudi diplomats in 1989 and 1990 in Thailand. I was later indicted for killing them and abducting Ruwaili, but public prosecutors dropped the indictment in 1993, which resulted in me not being able to present my evidence [proving my innocence] since.
This means that the relatives had one-sided details that I was actually behind all that all along, which resulted in bilateral ties being strained and Thai labourers cut from [once-large] employment quotas to work in the Middle East.
What prompted the case to be reopened when the end of its statute of limitations was nearing?
The reopening was certainly politically motivated, because apart from me being a brother of retired General Somjate Bunthanon, the chief-of-staff of the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy [which toppled the Thaksin Shinawatra government in 2006], I was a CDRM adviser tasked with inspecting various wrongdoings of Thaksin, and I found many of them.
I was later appointed the commander of Regional Police Bureau 5 [which covers many northern provinces that are strongholds of pro-Thaksin red shirts], before I was wanted out – hence came the reopening of the case.
The Department of Special Investigation later brought up as a new piece of evidence a statement by Pol Lt-Colonel Suwitchai Kaewphaluek, who was a fugitive after being wanted for a murder, citing hearsay from former Pol Sgt-Major Prasong Thorang [one of five co-defendants, along with Somkid] that Prasong learned that Ruwaili had been killed. The DSI later took this to the public prosecutors, who brought a fresh indictment that led to the reopening of the case.
During the Abhisit Vejjajiva government, I overheard a politician asking how come I was appointed the Regional Police Bureau 5 chief, and I speculate that that later resulted in the DSI starting with the investigation against me – as a rival of a group of men in uniform – in order to get me removed from my position.
There was also talk about me and my brother [Somjate] getting involved in Thai politics. But given that the Ruwaili case was nearing the end of the statute of limitations, I believe there was another issue getting me in trouble, anyway.
I and my brother had been accused of setting up an election-rigging allegation against the now-defunct People Power Party that Thaksin led, and we were warned of retribution against us if there were to be a change in power. I believe this led to me being picked on, because my investigation into the election-rigging issue later led to the People Power Party being disbanded.
There was reference to a gold ring believed to belong to Ruwaili that was regarded as a key new piece of evidence that prompted the reopening of the case. Why was the ring not mentioned at the beginning?
I was indicted [over Ruwaili’s disappearance] in 1993, and was later cleared, which prevented me under procedural regulations from getting involved in the original investigation, except if there were new pieces of evidence arising – hence, the ring.
The gold ring was brought up by Suwitchai, who persuaded the DSI to be confident that it could reopen the case against me, deeming it to be a key piece of evidence that could lead to my conviction. This pleased the political power [which the DSI serves], because I was then [as the Regional Police Bureau 5 commander] an obstacle to political movements in the North [that support this political power].
[I regarded] the reopening of the case as instead being an opportunity for me to prove myself [as innocent of all allegations] throughout the past 24 years. The appointments of new Saudi charges d’affaires, the police reshuffles, whenever these came along, the cases involving me would come up again, and this hindered my career and promotions, as I think could [otherwise] have earned the rank of a police general.
How did retired police investigator Pol Lt-General Chalor Kerdthes get involved briefly during the reopening of the case?
I need to trace back to when Suwitchai and another man allegedly murdered Chat Damrongphan Chalermchaiphak, a leader of a movement against the [Laotian government], in Bangkok in 2002, before Suwitchai was given life imprisonment and later fled to another country during a temporary post-conviction release.
There was a change in power in Thai politics, when Samak Sundaravej under the People Power Party took over [as elected prime minister] from the coup-appointed Surayudh Chulanont government. The DSI reopened the case after replacing then-director-general [pro-Thaksin] Tawee Sodsong with Sunai Manomai-udom.
Then-justice minister Sompong Amornwiwat later approached Chalor to persuade him to testify as a state witness based on a key material piece of evidence – the gold ring – which was a way to warn me off the election-rigging investigation that I was handling by then.
The investigation results that I produced later led to the Supreme Court’s Election Division disbanding the People Power Party and banning the party’s executives from politics for five years.