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Tarit case reflects imbalance in Thai justice

Tarit case reflects imbalance in Thai justice

FRIDAY, December 21, 2018
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The DSI chief who wore two hats – and shirts of clashing colours – pays the penalty for a lack of integrity

Common sense alone dictates that the justice system ought to be immune to political influence, and yet pragmatism suggests that it cannot always be so. Underscoring the improbability – if not the impossibility – of the justice mechanism as a whole maintaining the requisite neutrality that is taken for granted in most ostensibly democratic societies is the fate of Tarit Pengdit. 
The former director-general of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) was this month jailed for a year for libelling Suthep Thaugsuban when the latter was deputy premier in the Democrat Party-led government half a decade ago. Tarit confessed to the charge, in effect admitting that he had been wrong to accuse Suthep of using his power to limit bidding on a contract to build 396 police stations across Thailand. In pronouncing the sentence, the court declined to consider his confession. He was immediately taken to Bangkok Remand Prison.
Much like the once-faultless United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has proved to be, the DSI became not a forthright enforcer of the law but a political tool. President Donald Trump appears to have sacked James Comey as FBI director last year not for ineffectiveness as a guarantor of public order but because he failed to follow orders that would have entailed circumventing the law. 
Tarit’s fate is just as telling, if not more so. He lived and has now in effect died by the political sword, an outcome that makes a mockery of the proclaimed independence of the agency he once led.
Opponents of the Democrat-led government decried Tarit as a Suthep lackey because he brought a slew of cases against key red-shirt figures aligned with ousted former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. He remained in the job at the DSI when Thaksin’s Pheu Thai affiliates resumed power, only for the Democrats in turn to accuse him of serving the red political agenda.
Twice acquitted of libel in the lower courts, Tarit saw his fortunes upended in the Supreme Court this month, and some would deem the guilty verdict poetic justice. It would be unduly harsh to say he deserves to be punished, but it is difficult to fathom his grasp of the law when he took contrary actions under consecutive governments, one republican and one royalist. He seemed to be applying the law according to which party was in power. He clearly had little regard for his sworn duty or the spirit of the law.
If Tarit regarded the prime minister of the moment as his boss, he was forgetting that he was actually answerable only to the people – and the colour of the shirts the people were wearing should not have coloured his application of the law. 
The Comey affair further diminished America’s global standing as a model of democracy. The FBI was shown to be a political tool wielded by whoever held power, rather than a servant of the public. The DSI became much the same. It was not as though Tarit had no choice. He chose a specific direction that led to red shirts condemning him, and then altered course 180 degrees under Pheu Thai-affiliated governments. 
In neither case was the law being fairly served.
To flutter back and forth with the shifting political wind is to regard the law as transient and malleable. The law can indeed be changed, but in a functioning democracy, its progressive intent must be constant.