Govt dismisses abuse of power allegations

Govt dismisses abuse of power allegations
Natthapat Phromkaew,
Petchanet Pratruangkrai

Prayut could have already seized Yingluck's assets under Article 44: Wissanu
The government is not abusing its power in the cases against Yingluck Shinawatra stemming from the rice-pledging scheme - as it could have invoked special authority under Article 44 of the interim charter to seize her assets, Deputy Premier Wissanu Krea-ngam said yesterday.

Wissanu, who is in charge of the government's legal affairs, dismissed claims that Article 44, which empowers Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to issue orders at his discretion to solve the country's problems, was abused to unfairly bolster prosecution of Yingluck.

Prayut, in his capacity as head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), had issued Order 39/2558 to provide legal protection to government officials and entities handling controversial and politically sensitive cases. This includes an administrative order that has been issued seeking compensation from Yingluck and other former Cabinet members.

Wissanu said if the government wanted to abuse its power, it could just issue a special order under Article 44 to confiscate the assets of those allegedly involved in the rice-pledging scheme, which was estimated to have lost more than Bt500 billion in state funds.

Under order 39/2558, he said state officials and entities handling the disposal of rice left over from the pledging scheme are protected from facing any lawsuits that may be filed against them. This legal protection is valid only when the officials and entities concerned act in good faith. Even in normal cases they are legally protected without such a special order by the NCPO, but the government wanted to ensure that they would not be held liable if counter-suits were filed.

On the civil compensation case, he said the Finance Ministry, which is responsible for seeking massive compensation from those guilty in this case, would be able to extend the timetable for questioning witnesses. But the ministry had to ensure the case was prosecuted within the statute of limitations - two years.

At this stage, the Finance Ministry's fact-finding committee on the case has been given another 30 days to question witnesses after it could not finish the task by the first deadline on October 30.

Wissanu said some government officials were previously worried about political and legal repercussions resulting from handling the rice-pledging scheme, including those concerned they could face counter-suits in the future. This had resulted in inaction in this case so the government needed to reassure people that if they did work in good faith they would be protected.

The extra legal protection would also help officials responsible for counting the inventories of rice in this scheme and those responsible for disposing stocks left over from the previous government, Wissanu said. A large number of officials in many provinces, as well as private sector officials had been involved in the whole process since May 22 2014, he said.

For example, some rice stocks were stored at private mills, so mill owners were not sure if they would be prosecuted in the future if there was no extra legal protection. He noted that there was still 13 million tonnes of rice left in the pledging scheme after 9-10 million tonnes was sold.

Meanwhile, permanent secretary for Commerce Chutima Bunyapraphasara said the 39/2558 order would speed up the sale of remaining rice, while easing pressure on officials who could be sued.

Chutima said the legal protection order did not affect fake government-to-government deals, or previous losses from the scheme.

"Rice stocks are huge during this government, while costs of pledged rice and market rice prices vary among the 18 million tonnes of rice currently in the government's stock, as there is rice from 2005 up to 2014/2015 harvest seasons."

She noted that the release of rice was high risk as some stock had deteriorated in quality. Officials needed to decide to sell rice at some price, but could guarantee that it was done in a transparent process. They also needed to carefully consider sales so they do not affect the market price or hurt farmers or traders.

According to the ministry, the current government has already released 6.38 million tonnes of rice from state stocks - worth Bt75 billion - since May 2014 to present.

About 13 million tonnes remains in state stocks, of which about 4.6 million tonnes are rotten due to long-term storage.

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