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PM vows to wipe out corruption

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told the Bangkok Post Forum 2016 he can wipe out corruption, but it will take at least 20 years and it won't be simple. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has vowed to completely wipe out corruption within 20 years via several means through the interim charter, government policies, the draft charter, and the national reform and strategic plan.

One policy to be put into practice is the establishment of a corruption division to be attached to the Criminal Court and made operational beginning Saturday.

Tremendous efforts to deal with corruption have been undertaken since the promulgation of the 1997 charter. The National Anti Corruption Commission (NACC) was established to investigate corruption and fraud against political office holders and state officials at all levels.

The NACC was overwhelmed with cases and a new agency known as the Public Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) was created to help ease the workload by investigating cases involving lower-level state officials.

The two agencies presented many cases to the courts of justice which face a high backlog of cases. This is in part due to the nature of the inquisitorial system adopted by Thailand in which investigators and judges must establish facts. All corruption cases go the Criminal Court's corruption division.

In a bid to fast-track the cases, the cabinet last year approved two bills to set up a special court for corruption case trials. The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) unanimously passed the bills in June.

Monday will be the first working day for the the country's first-ever corruption court and about 70 cases will be transferred to establish the initial stage.

The court requires chiefs of judge panels to have at least 20 years of experience while panel members must have a minimum of 10 years' experience. The court will have 10 panels of judges.

Some observers have expressed concern that the number of judges would be insufficient to handle the increase in cases.

The new court's chief judge Amnat Phuangchomphu said the number of judges could be raised to a maximum of 45.

He said the corruption court's work procedure is similar to that of the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Political Position-Holders in which judges can seek truth beyond court evidence to prove allegations.

The public is also allowed to file complaints against state officials accused of malfeasance directly with the court and they can lodge complaints with the court across the country for the sake of convenience. All will end up at the corruption court.

"Many of the 70 cases which are scattered and to be transferred to the corruption court involve high-ranking officials," he said.

State officials and individuals accused of money laundering, price colluding, giving, receiving or demanding bribes, intimidating, coercing or using influence to force state officials to act or not to act will be tried in the corruption court.

In addition, cases involving false declaration of assets or concealment of assets or cover-ups will be tried in the new court.

The statute of limitations will be suspended when defendants flee, but hearings and rulings can proceed in the defendant's absence. The right to appeal is revoked in cases of flight.

Mana Nitimongkol, secretary-general and director of the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand, expects to see improvements in three areas following the establishment of the corruption court.

It should create a body of knowledge about fraud and corruption in the country and allow relevant parties to design better mechanisms to address the problem. With inadequate information, it is difficult to assess the situation and come up with the right measures.

It is envisaged corruption cases will progress with haste. Several high-profile cases such as the advertising-revenue fraud scandal against news anchor Sorrayuth Suthassanachinda or the value-added tax refund scam involving the former director-general of the Revenue Department, Satit Rungkasiri, are proceeding slowly with an average of 12 to 14 months in a primary court.

The new process should deter people from engaging in corrupt practices. A speedy process means wrongdoers will pay for their crimes. And the court is authorised to seize assets other than the targets if evidence permits.

Meanwhile, former NACC member Vicha Mahakhun welcomed the corruption court, saying it will boost the fight against graft.

Like the tax court, it is specialised and staffed with experienced judges. Moreover, it uses the inquisitorial system so the judge can seek the truth beyond what is presented before the court.

High-ranking officials sometimes undermine efforts to find the truth, especially when a conflict of interest is involved.

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