A Foreigner in a Thai Court

May 27, 2007

When I was younger, I once sat on the jury of a murder trial. It lasted for about seven days. I had always been fascinated by courtroom dramas and after watching “Twelve Angry Men” I fancied myself as Head Juror. Alas, I was only 19 at the time and no-one voted me for that position. Although it was a serious case, I did enjoy my time listening to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. The evidence was overwhelming and I think we all knew what the verdict would be quite early on in the case. On the final day, we were sent to deliberate the verdict just before lunch. There wasn’t really much to discuss and I think we could have gone back in straight away with a guilty verdict. However, out of respect for the accused, we decided we should at least put on a show of having a deep and meaningful discussion. We were also hungry and decided to order the free lunch and give our verdict after we had sufficiently rested.

In Thailand, the Courts of Justice don’t quite work in the same way. In the Criminal Courts, there are always at least two judges and no jury. Although it may seem to be unfair not being judged by a panel of your peers. I think it is probably better if amateurs, like myself, didn’t have so much of a say in the lives of the accused. But then, that leaves a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the judges. A few days ago I was in court for the trial of a defendent who had been accused of attempted murder. This was a Westerner who was being put on trial in a foreign land. Everything was conducted in Thai. At the beginning of the case, there was a discussion between the judges and the defence team as to whether there should be translations for the defendent during the trial. The judge was of the opinion that it would slow the proceedings down too much and asked the lawyer to only translate what she felt was necessary. Really, John was lucky to have a lawyer that spoke English. Another prisoner that I spoke to said he couldn’t afford his own lawyer. So, the court appointed one for free ,who unfortunately didn’t speak any English. He said there was a court interpreter, but all he said was “You, come here. Sit down. Stand up. Sign here” etc. Other than that, he had no idea what was going on or even how much time he was sentenced to. In fact, he was the last to know.

The courtroom wasn’t very large. There were probably about six or so of these rooms on this floor alone. At the front was the raised platform where the judges sat. Above them is a portrait of H.M. The King. Below it is the symbol of the court, a downward pointing dagger with scales balancing on it. In front of the bench sat the court clerk. On the judges right was the table for the prosecution. On the left was the table for the defense. In the middle of the room, facing the judges bench, was the chair and table for the witness. The room was roughly split in half with a low railing. Behind this were the benches where members of the public and interested parties sat. In Thailand, courts are usually open to the public. So, in theory, if you are respectfully dressed, you could go and watch a trial. Just remember no cameras are allowed and you should turn off your mobile phone.

At about 9.35 a.m., John (not his real name) was escorted into the courtroom by a policeman. He was barefoot and chained at the ankles. A piece of string was attached to the chains which enabled him to pick them off the floor as he hobbled along. The policeman told him to sit down on the front bench next to where I was sitting. I asked him whether he remembered me visiting him in prison and he said “yes” but he didn’t remember my name.  While we were waiting for the judges to arrive, I tried to have a conversation with him. He wasn’t looking too good.

Shortly later, the two judges arrived through their private entrance at the front of the court. No-one announced their arrival, but everyone stood up anyway. They wore a black robe with a dark velvet edging around the neck and down the front. People didn’t wai the judges, but bowed instead. The public prosecutor was sat on my left. I recognized her instantly as she was also in Gor’s trial. The first day was reserved for the prosecution. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution and she has to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In the morning, she called three witnesses: the victim, the arresting officer and a witness to the crime. Each one was called forward where they then put their hands together in a prayer like gestured and promised to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. As in Western courts, the prosecutor asked a series of questions and then the defence were allowed to cross examine. However, there were some notable differences.

In Western courts, there would be a stenographer who would make a record of everything that was said. However, in Thailand, this is left up to the judge. In front of him was a tape recorder. This wasn’t to record the witness. What happened is that after the witness had answered the question, the judge would then paraphrase what he had just said. But, he didn’t do this for everything. Only what he deemed to be relevant. During the cross-examination, I could see the defence lawyer pausing before he asked each question so that the judge could have time to record the answer. However, sometimes the judge didn’t bother to record anything which obviously annoyed the defence. He just told them to ask the next question. The witness had said he was in hospital for four days. However, under cross examination, he said he was only in ICU for the first day. The judge didn’t record that.

I also noticed that the judges participated more in the questioning of the witness. Sometimes they asked questions that they felt the prosecutor should have asked. Or a question to clarify an answer. Like in my previous trial, the prosecutor sometimes left the courtroom during cross-examination. Although there were two judges, there was only one lead judge. The other was there as support. Every now and then he would change tapes and the court clerk would then take this to type up. At the start of each tape he would record something and then quickly rewind it to see if it recorded properly. The last witness of the morning was supposed to be the doctor. However, he didn’t turn up which seemed to annoy the judges. After a few phone calls, they decided to postpone the next trial date. The prosecution were supposed to finish on this day and then the following week the defence team would have their turn. But, as the doctor couldn’t come the trial was put off for just over two weeks.

It is doubtful that the verdict will be read out on that day. From previous experience, I would say it would take them two to three weeks before they set a date for the verdict to be read. By about 12 p.m., the court clerk had finished typing up the testimonials from the witnesses. These were then read out in court. Each witness was then asked if what had been read was a true account. They said it was. Then each relevant party had to sign these statements. At first John didn’t want to sign this document. It was all written in Thai. He said that he was being framed and didn’t want to be a part of all this. The lawyer managed to persuade him in the end by saying that he was only signing to witness this document. Not to say what was written was the truth.

Update: I was unable to go to his other trial dates.  As expected it did drag on as court dates were put off to another time. He was finally sentenced to nearly seven years in late October – five months after the first court date and one year after his arrest.

4 Responses to A Foreigner in a Thai Court

  1. Maddie Helly
    December 12, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    i am very interested in the accounts of foreign tourists arrested for any offences, I presently write to a gentleman by the name of andrew hawke, he was sentenced to 99 yrs for drug use, andy does not feel sorry for himself only that he was ‘ foolish ‘ to believe that he could traffic drugs on one occasion & become financially secure again as he was down on his luck, no job, no home & the break up of his mariage where he has a son whom he has not seen for many years, his ex wife died a few years ago & his Son is being cared for by his Grandmother.
    if anybody can advise myself in anyway i would be greatful as I am presently trying to open an account for Andy at Bangkwan prison in Bangkok…..
    he will then be able to purchase small items of luxary such as water as the prison is on the banks of the river in Nonthaburi.
    I have been in contact with Andy for Six years now & he has never asked for a penny off myself & Husband Mike. He is whitty by character & most certainly does not feel sorry for himself or harp on about ‘ what if ‘ andy feels he did the crime of drug smuggling & deserves to be punished, but would like a transfer back to the U.K to finish off the next number of years in a british jail such as pentonvile or Wandsworth both being Cat ( A )along with Wormwood Scrubbs. Unfortunately because of the Thai system this is not an option at present, but andy continues to fight his corner & tells me that it is stopping him from going ‘ mad ‘ having something to vocus on,he infact has written hundreds of letters to the Home office & thai officials to continually be told he has to serve his time out in Bangkwan, if anybody is interested in this story, plse contact myself from the adresse’s I have provided …
    Andy always believe’s that one day he will be a free man & i hope the same for him at this time …

    Yours with respect,

    Maddie Helly

    • Richard Barrow
      December 12, 2011 at 9:17 pm

      I will have to check, but I think after five years he can apply to be transferred back to the UK. However, not all of them want to do this. At Bang Kwang they have a lot more freedom to do what they want and the food is a lot better. Also, if he had committed the same offence in the UK, he would be in an ordinary prison. But, if he is transferred there now with a life sentence, he will be locked down in a maximum security prison with serial killers. He probably won’t see much daylight apart from brief exercise times.

    • Shona
      August 1, 2012 at 6:26 pm

      Dear Maddie, I saw Andrew Hawke on a BBC documentary recently and was struck by his wit and good humour (considering). Do you have any news of his transfer? Do you know who to write to help his case? Are there any MPs in this country trying to help him?
      All the best, good for you for writing to him

  2. jitendra singh negi
    May 18, 2013 at 2:00 pm


    Respect sir ,

    my name jitendra singh negi my brother name Anil singh negi going in thi in feb arrival visa but my bro visa is exp date on feb so my brother give money thailand advocate 30,000 thousand bht but this person cheat , and theft , and all day extension money and black mail my little brother no visa extension and my little brother suffering from pain in thailand very poor condition of thailand my brother and some day arest my brother immgration office so ple help my little bro my family request of you because iam poor family belong i have no money extra so ple sir help my brother return back india my brother number +66880135667 and my mobile number 09634268446 so please my help sir i requested you . and arest the advocate cheat my brother ,

    thanking you
    jitendra singh negi

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