A helicopter lift during the transfers from the deep jungle. Credit: DNP

22 Bangkloi Karens temporarily released upon court’s new release-without-bail measure

Their village head has been assigned as their supervisor and guarantor while their cases are proceeding following legal procedures, whereas Karen supporter groups and human rights advocates are mobilizing campaigns to support them to fight in legal cases in the city

22 Bangkloi Karens who were accused of encroaching Kaeng Krachan National Park and under arrest in Friday afternoon have been released this afternoon following the court’s deliberation for the no-bail condition.

They had been placed under the first round of detention at Khao Kling Prison Camp in Petchaburi Province upon the request made to the Petchaburi Court by the police.

According to the Justice Court’s spokesperson staff, the court had held a video-conference with the Karen offenders today to consider whether they should be released without bail following the Justice Court’s new measure in regard to temporary releases without bail.

This, the staff said, follows the new judicial act concerning regulation on temporary releases for legal offenders, which has been in effect since late 2017.

Article 4 of the act refers to the prime conditions to be met for legal offenders who contest for the court’s temporary releases without bail. These also include an appointment of a person to supervise them during their temporary releases.

The spokesperson of the Office of the Judiciary, Suriyan Hongvilai said; “Such an appointment in exchange of bail requirements is a new judicial measure that the Court has adopted in order for legal offenders to be able to access to rights to temporary releases without bail. This also helps reduce a chance that the offenders would escape and cause further damage during their court cases, and it’s been proved to be more effective than bail imposition.”

Accompanied with the Karen offenders’ requests to the court, which cited that they are poor people, the Petchaburi Court , which is responsible for their legal cases, then decided to grant them temporary releases during their first round of detention.

The court also noted that it can issue an order to release legal offenders over the weekend as this is the new policy of the Justice Court to allow temporary releases for legal offenders without holidays. The electronic request forms were sent back and forth between the court and the prison camp for the offenders to sign up for acknowledgement before the releases were made without their presence in court.

The other conditions imposed along with their temporary releases are that they must not return to the seized plots of forestland, nor enter other forest areas of the national park without permission. This is to prevent further damage done while their legal cases are proceeding. Their village head has been appointed to supervise them to follow the court’s instructions strictly.

According to a local newspaper, Petchbhumi, their village head, Nirand Phongthep went to see them along with a lawyer from Human Rights Lawyers Association and their relatives to receive them in the evening after the release order. Mr. Nirand told the newspaper that the Karen offenders must report to him every 12 days, and if they breach the court’s instructions, they could be fined upto Bt 50,000 each and see their temporary release order removed.

Among those offenders is Nhor-ae Meemi, a son of late Grandpa Ko-I Meemi, who had fought for his occupational land rights over the plot of land in the forest until his case becomes one of the country’s high-profile court cases concerning a fight over occupational land rights and community rights.  (Read: Bangkloi Saga)

Mr. Nhor-ae told Petchbhumi briefly that he felt hurtful for the authorities’ acts against his will and that of his fellow Karens, who wished to return to their ancestral land of Bangkloi Bon.

The Karens during the interrogation after the helicopter transfers.
Credit: DNP

The arrests

22 Bangkloi Karens were arrested on Friday after the park officials of Kaeng Krachan National Park had filed a complaint to the police against them on last Friday and requested for arrest warrants from the court during the week.

According to DNP’s deputy director-general Prakit Vongsrivattanakul, who held the press conference on Friday, the park officials had learned over the week that more people had travelled up to camp along with their fellow Karens, while more plots of forestland around their makeshift campsite had been cleared.

From some 60 people when they were first reported to have fled Bangkloi Lang to Bangkloi Bon, the number of the Karens occupying the area last week was first down to 21 following the negotiations to convince them to return to the resettlement village before jumping up to 59 as more people travelled up to join the rest. And this has increased to 85 this week.

Up to 30 plots of land from some ten plots when first surveyed in late January, or around 157 rai in total, have also been cleared.

“If we have done nothing (arrests), there would be more forest encroachment as a result,” Mr. Praki had said, while insisting that the park officials strictly adhered to legal procedures and did not use force during the operation.

Among 85, 36 were children, who were accompanied and sent back to their resettlement village by the park officials. 27 adults faced minor fines for failing to follow park officials’ instructions (not to enter the park without permission), while 20 more were under arrest for having encroached upon forestland.

Another two adult Karens with the same charge were intercepted outside the camp, bringing the total number of the Karens under arrest to 22.

The conflict between Bangkloi Karens and park officials has exploded since mid-January as some 60 Karens from Bangkloi Lang fled to Bangkloi Bon, claiming they had faced hardship in lives due to a lack of plots of land to make a living and Covid-19. They have been camping up there since, in spite of the officials’ attempts to bring them back to the resettlement village during the so-called Petchaburi Watershed Operation last week.

From negotiations, the attempts have turned into legal disputes and eventually the arrests as the officials decided late last week to file a complaint against them after failing to convince them all to return to the resettlement village during their consecutive talks. (Read: Bangkloi forestland conflict escalates into legal disputes)

P-Move supporters are camping outside Government House.
Credit: P-Move

Karen supporters and human rights advocates, meanwhile, are mobilizing campaigns to support them to fight in legal cases and camping outside Government House. They have demanded the releases without conditions for the Karens, while raising many more similar land conflict issues for the government’s consideration.