Thai billionaire appears in court as poaching trial begins

FILE - In this March 14, 2018, file photo, Thai business tycoon, president of the Italian-Thai Development, Premchai Karnasuta arrives at the wildlife police headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand. The trial has begun for Premchai who is accused of poaching an endangered black panther and other animals in a wildlife sanctuary. Premchai appeared at the Kanchanaburi Provincial Court on Tuesday for the first witness testimony hearing in his case. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File)

KANCHANABURI, Thailand (AP) — The trial of a Thai billionaire construction tycoon charged with poaching an endangered black panther and other animals in a wildlife sanctuary began Tuesday after months of delay.

Premchai Karnasuta, the president of Italian-Thai Development PLC, appeared at the provincial court in Kanchanaburi in western Thailand to hear initial testimony in the case against him.

The case has been met with public skepticism that justice will be done in a country that has seen the privileged prevail in high-profile cases. Wildlife activists concerned about the case have worn masks of the slain big cat as a symbol of protest on several occasions and environmentalists have pledged to keep up pressure.

Premchai was arrested last February after park rangers found that he and three of his company’s employees had set up camp at the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, where they were found with guns and the carcasses of a black panther and other animals.

Members of the group face six charges: illegal gun possession, hunting in a protected wildlife sanctuary, hunting without licenses, possessing animal carcasses without licenses and collecting materials from a protected forest without permission.

In February, Premchai appeared before police and was granted bail after he said that he did not kill the panther.

A court statement said Tuesday’s hearing was to hear testimony from three prosecution witnesses, including a deputy police chief and the park ranger who had discovered the hunting group.

The statement also said that the 64-year-old Premchai had requested that the trial be conducted without him present, and that the court would allow his request because the maximum penalty in the case would add up to less than 10 years imprisonment and he already has a lawyer.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.