Thai tycoon found guilty for poaching but freed ahead of appeal

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Premchai Karnasuta leaves the court after hearing the verdict against himself and three other suspects in a poaching caseImage source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption,
Premchai Karnasuta was once among Thailand's 50 richest people, according to Forbes

The head of one of Thailand's largest construction firms has been sentenced to 16 months in jail on three poaching charges but is free pending an appeal.

Premchai Karnasuta was caught with hunting gear and animal carcasses, including a black panther, in a protected sanctuary in February 2018.

Three of his employees, but not Premchai, were found guilty on Tuesday of possessing the panther carcass.

The case had sparked an outcry over the impunity of the rich and powerful.

Premchai is head of Italian-Thai Development, a Bangkok-based firm that helped build the capital's Suvarnabhumi airport and Skytrain rail link.

The high-profile case has been closely followed in Thailand, where convictions for poaching happen often but rarely when it comes to prominent people.

What happened in court?

The 64-year-old was found guilty of possessing the carcass of a Kalij pheasant and firearms in public areas, and supporting others to hunt in a protected wildlife sanctuary.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Authorities released photos of Premchai with hunting gear and animal carcasses

His cook and driver were given lesser sentences, while his hunting guide was the only one found guilty of hunting and was sentenced to three years and five months.

Premchai was granted bail of 400,000 baht (£9,500, $12,600) as the court did not consider him a flight risk.

What happened last year?

Park rangers arrested the construction magnate after finding him and three others camped at Thungyai Naresuan national park.

The men were found with three rifles, 143 bullets and other hunting tools, and a slain black panther, Kalij pheasant and barking deer - all protected species under Thai conservation law.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
This image went viral and inspired protests and graffiti calling for an investigation

The wildlife sanctuary in western Thailand is home to wild elephants, tigers and many endangered species, according to Thailand's Wildlife Friends Foundation.

What is the reaction?

Local wildlife groups praised the authorities for detaining the four men last year.

Striking images of the skinned black panther went viral and inspired protests and graffiti across Bangkok calling for an investigation.

Some political parties have even used the photos in their campaigning ahead of Sunday's general election, vowing for an improved justice system.

"Justice is meted out unequally," Steve Galster of wildlife organisation Freeland Foundation told news agency AFP.

"The main thing is this is a public shaming [for Premchai]," he said, adding he hopes the court "will stick with the decision" after his appeal.