Thailand’s justice crusader

Dr Pornthip will observe Teoh Beng Hock’s second autopsy.—Pictures by Choo Choy May

By Debra Chong

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 21 — Teoh Beng Hock, the 30-year-old political aide to a Selangor executive councillor who died and was buried in July, will be exhumed this morning for another autopsy in Hospital Sungai Buloh tomorrow.

The new team’s role is to confirm if he really did die because he jumped off a high building unaided or was pushed out a window after being beaten up to the point of passing out.

Thai pathologist Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand  engaged by Teoh’s employer, the Selangor state government — had testified in an inquest last month that there was a 80 per cent probability that his death was a homicide rather than a suicide, which was the finding of the first autopsy by two local pathologists.

The coroner’s court has agreed to let Dr Pornthip and one other British forensic expert — hired by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) — observe the second autopsy, which under Malaysian laws, must be performed by local doctors.

It is only Dr Pornthip’s second time advising a case outside of her native country.

But the 53-year-old stern-faced doctor remained fully composed when met by The Malaysian Insider here recently, when she flew in to join the third Asian Forensic Sciences Network Conference.

Her first consultation outside Thailand was three years ago, in Muslim-majority Aceh, she related.

Like Malaysia, Indonesia’s laws limit a foreign forensic expert’s role in an autopsy.

She had been called in to assist a second and independent post-mortem on an opposition member who was thought to have been killed by the country’s powerful military.

“It was more than six months after his death. He was also Muslim. The body was not in good shape,” Dr Pornthip said.

Unlike a Christian burial where the body is encased in a coffin, a Muslim body is wrapped up in a shroud and laid directly into the earth.

Dr Pornthip had previously testified that a post-mortem is best done within the first six months of burial as the natural decaying process holds a higher risk of eating up evidence in suspicious deaths.

Even so, in Aceh, the second autopsy confirmed the public sentiment that foul play was involved in the victim’s death.

What happened next to the case?

Dr Pornthip shrugged her thin shoulders, sending her multi-coloured lion’s mane fluffing sideways.

She does not know. She was specifically engaged for her scientific knowledge only.

In Thailand though, things are slightly different for her.

As the director-general of the Bangkok-based Central Institute of Forensic Science Institute (CIFS), she reports directly to the chief secretary in the Ministry of Justice, and is granted greater clout in the investigation process.

She explained that there was an attempt in Thailand a few years, to bring the various investigative and prosecution divisions under the same roof, namely the Ministry of Justice, to better co-ordinate the entire justice system.

But it failed. She blamed it on politics, noting that then Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra — who she says once worked as a police constable — refused to push the Bill in Parliament.

The police itself, said Dr Pornthip, reports directly to the prime minister, again unlike Malaysia where its powers are curbed by the home minister.

Then, as now, the police force decides what cases go to court for prosecution, unlike Malaysia where it is the Attorney-General who decides.

Earlier, she spoke enthusiastically about the Asian Forensic Sciences Network Conference, which she had been invited to and regarded it as a brilliant idea to “build a network among Asian countries to share knowledge”.

She added that some eight countries participated this year, which included newcomers South Korea, Laos and Vietnam.

All but Thailand had sent representatives from both the scientific side as well as the police side.

No police official came to speak for her country, she said disappointedly.

“The system of investigation in Thailand is under police authority. We are still very far behind other countries… even Malaysia,” Dr Pornthip lamented.

Apart from these outward divisions of power, the two countries are bound by a common public perception that the authorities — the police especially — frequently abuse their power and have a deeply entrenched practice of selective prosecution.

These two points were critically highlighted in the Corruptions Perceptions Index launched worldwide earlier this week by global corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Dr Pornthip is often at odds with the chief of police in public over her institute’s findings, which more often than not, contradict the findings of the police investigation teams, and this has put her personal and professional life at risk.

Strident critics in Thailand have labelled her an “egomaniac”, a fact she is well aware of, but was surprised to learn that those hateful comments have also started springing up in Malaysia in the wake of the Teoh Beng Hock case.

She turned her head away sharply in a dismissive gesture.

“A lot of Asian people like that, just like Thai,” said Dr Pornthip. “Maybe because of my appearance.”

“I don’t want to be something like a hero, heroine. When they want to find the truth, I don’t want my name to be first,” she added, and explained that it was because of high-profile cases that received a lot of media attention that she became famous.

Dr Pornthip remarked that it had started when a member of the Thai Parliament was involved in a case.

The MP’s brother was found dead. Police investigators claimed he had shot himself but she carried out an independent investigation and found that it was impossible for him to have shot himself and backed it up with her scientific findings.

“For me, I don’t care about politics or sensitive issues. I just try to help the victims find the truth,” she said.

The forensic science institute she now leads was established seven years ago, she said, to give “a choice for the people to come in and ask for help in investigation” when the main door for justice through the police had slammed in their faces.

She related that anyone can walk in to CIFS from the street and request their help for a second opinion.

Dr Pornthip explained that CIFS aimed to boost the standard of investigation practices in Thailand, to make it more accountable and transparent.

The work they do is a combination of forensic science, which deals with death investigations, and forensic medicine, which deals with living patients, she added.

“We are trying to train crime scene investigators to be specialists,” she summarised.

Currently, the CIFS is manned by 300 people, with 85 per cent made out of scientists who hold great knowledge but little field work experience.

It gets five cases a week involving unnatural death where foul play is suspected. Thirty per cent of their investigations confirm those suspicions.

But mainly CIFS is kept busy with work in rural areas to help identify anonymous bodies. This amounts to 1,000 missing people reported a year.

Those jobs, though, she delegates to the rest of the staff. For now, she has thrown herself into investigating a series of “organised crime” in southern Thailand, which has been put under martial law.

Leading her 15-man team — few of her colleagues want to head south to work and she doesn’t want to force them — Dr Pornthip collaborates with the local military force to collect evidence and trains the soldiers on how to conserve, collect, secure and handle crime scene investigations.

That consumes most of her time and energy. She related that the serial killings are highly organised hate crimes and take many forms, from beheadings, which are the most difficult to piece together — because the heads are often missing from the crime scene — to bombs.

Dr Pornthip noted with concern that the use of explosives was on the rise and foresees a trend for them in strife-torn regions across Asia.

Smiling brightly, she added that Malaysia was lucky to be spared such forms of terrorism.

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