Angry start to Thai Rak Thai's poll fraud case
Defence lawyer clashes with judge over TRT right to question witnesses
The Thai Rak Thai Party’s defence team, led by Pongthep Thepkanchana, prepares to present its case in the Constitution Tribunal yesterday, which began hearings into alleged fraud by the party in last year’s election.
A fierce war of words erupted on day one of the Constitution Tribunal hearing into alleged electoral fraud by the Thai Rak Thai Party - with disagreement between Thai Rak Thai's lawyer and a Tribunal judge on what kind of questions the defendants could ask witnesses.
The trial had a dramatic start with the party's representatives, former executive Pongthep Thepkanchana, and lawyer Somsak Toraksa, urging the Tribunal to give them the chance to make the truth apparent.
Democrat Party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban and executive Chinnaworn Boonyakiat were witnesses for the Attorney-General, testifying as the people who first filed a complaint against Thai Rak Thai to the former Election Commission on the case.
Although some of Thai Rak Thai's key members had formerly questioned the legitimacy of the Tribunal to hear the case, its representatives said repeatedly they believed in the senior court.
However, the trial got fiercer after the first hour when Tribunal member Charan Hathagam rejected questions that Somsak asked Suthep, saying the Democrat had outlined information in his statement. And, Thai Rak Thai should have noted any objections in its document before the trial.
The Tribunal had the witnesses submit testimonies in statements seven days before the trial, then allowed the defendant to oppose any information three days before the trial. During the hearing, the Tribunal can ask more questions to clarify unclear issues and allow defendants to ask witnesses to oppose any information.
Somsak said defendants had the right to ask questions and show how weak arguments by the witnesses were, even if they were outlined in statements.
"This is an execution case for Thai Rak Thai Party. Please give us the chance to ask and oppose the witnesses' information," he said.
He repeated the same message many times when his questions were rejected.
Charan finally allowed him to ask a question, but with a voice showing he was clearly irritated.
"Yes, you can ask [Suthep] then," he said.
Somsak replied in an irritated voice: "Don't use temper with me. I am a lawyer and I have my dignity. You should be well mannered with me," he said.
Before tempers got any hotter, Tribunal President Panya Thanomrod called for a break. After half an hour, Panya took his chair and allowed Thai Rak Thai lawyers to ask questions to reduce the weight of allegations - but not emotional questions.
Thai Rak Thai is alleged to have hired the Pattana Chart Thai and Thai Ground parties to compete in the April 2 election last year to avoid the "20-per-cent rule", which requires an unopposed candidate to win 20 per cent of total ballots cast in the constituency.
Suthep confirmed yesterday his written testimony that he met Boontaweesak Amornsin, leader of the Pattana Chart Thai, for the first time on March 15. He had never known Boontaweesak before but rushed to his house at 2am because he wanted information about members changing parties and evidence that party members' details had been changed so that MP candidates could compete in the election, as a favour to Thai Rak Thai.
In the afternoon, Judge Charan returned to oversee proceedings when Chinnaworn testified.
Chinnaworn said during the trial he knew from local people that party members' details filed with the EC had been changed. Then he checked and found irregularities in the EC records on March 8.
Chinnaworn last year opposed the registration of candidates who sought to become members of Parliament in Nakhon Si Thammarat, saying they were not members of political parties 90 days before registration, as required.
However, Thai Rak Thai representative Kamol Bandaipetch said that while an Election Commission officer said he had changed the party members' information before March 8, Chinnaworn said the Democrats noticed the changed lists on March 8. Therefore, the Democrats must have had "the old information". Accordingly, Suthep's claim that he went to see Boontaweesak on March 15 to get the old list was not true.
The next hearing for the Thai Rak Thai case is scheduled for Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a separate trial for alleged electoral fraud by the Democrat Party will begin tomorrow. The Democrats, who did not contest the election, have been accused of hiring the Progressive Democratic Party to frame the Thai Rak Thai.
Both cases are expected to take months to hear, but either would make history if the Constitution Tribunal decides to dissolve one of them. Thai Rak Thai became the first party to form a one-party government after winning a big majority of seats in the Parliament in 2005. And the Democrat Party, at 60, is the country's oldest political party.