BANGKOK (AP) — Six unarmed people killed at a Buddhist temple during a military crackdown on anti-government protesters in Thailand's capital three years ago were slain by bullets fired by Thai soldiers, an inquest found Tuesday.
The inquest by the Bangkok South Criminal Court said that four men and one woman, mostly "Red Shirt" protesters who took refuge in Pathum Wanaram temple near the protest site, were killed by high-velocity bullets fired by Thai soldiers who were on the city's elevated train tracks, while another man was shot by soldiers from the ground.
The findings are a stark reminder of the bloody battle between the demonstrators and the government under then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The Red Shirts, consisting mostly of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and anti-establishment protesters, were calling for parliament to be dissolved and for fresh elections to be held.
The findings came at a time of renewed political tension, as protest groups gathered in Bangkok this week to oppose a bill that would grant amnesty to protesters who were involved in political demonstrations since the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin for alleged corruption and disrespect to the monarchy.
About 90 people were killed over several weeks in 2010 when demonstrators occupied downtown Bangkok for nine weeks before they dispersed by the deadly army crackdown.
The inquest dismissed claims by a soldier that there was an unidentified armed group near the temple when the shootings happened, saying there was not enough evidence. It also said the six people were not using any weapons when they were killed.
Abhisit's government approved the use of live ammunition under limited conditions and deployed sharpshooters and snipers during the demonstration.
Nattapat Akkahad, a younger brother of the slain volunteer nurse, Kamonkade Akkahad, said he was pleased with the ruling and called for the army personnel responsible to be prosecuted.
"I'm so glad that I don't know what to say. This just confirms our stance that no amnesty should be granted to state's security officers who acted beyond what was necessary," he said. "The soldiers must be held accountable."
Relatives of the others said they were content with the detailed findings and also called for prosecution of those responsible.
The inquest said it was not known who fired the bullets but said the security forces came from a ranger battalion and an infantry battalion of the Royal Thai Army.
Thai authorities have a long history of shielding military personnel from prosecution in political bloodsheds in recent decades.
One of the judges also said there was no evidence that weapons were piled inside the temple.
Thai Army deputy spokesman Col. Winthai Suvari said it is too soon to blame soldiers for the deaths.
"Don't jump to the conclusion just yet because this is merely part of a trial," Winthai told reporters on Tuesday. "More evidence and testimonies must be taken into account when the actual prosecution occurs."
"Society knows very well that the weapons seized by the protesters were found in the temple ... and neither soldiers, nor police could access that area," Winthai said, adding there were conflicts in testimonies that need resolving.
The protesters in Bangkok this week want to pressure lawmakers to withdraw the bill that was proposed by the ruling Pheu Thai Party, fearing it could pave the way for Thaksin's return.
Thaksin was sentenced to two years in jail on a conflict of interest charge in 2008, but he escaped punishment by living abroad in self-imposed exile.
Tuesday findings were the latest in a series of inquests in the years ago. In previous cases, the court ruled that five people were killed by guns used by military personnel, and that another person — an Italian photographer — killed by bullets that was fired from the direction of security forces, while two inquests were inconclusive on who committed the killings.
Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Tuesday also gave a testimony in a hearing for the inquest of a slain Reuters Japanese cameraman, Hiroyuki Muramoto, who was shot dead on April 10, 2010, during the first round of a crackdown on protesters.
Attorneys will give the inquest results to investigators to be used in criminal prosecutions.
The Department of Special Investigation began a murder investigation of Abhisit and his then-deputy Suthep Thaugsuban last year, but charges have not been brought to court.