A Thai police chief accused of torturing and killing a suspected drug dealer while in custody, allegedly in an attempt to extort tens of thousands of pounds, has been arrested following a manhunt.
Thitisan Utthanaphon, 39, who has been removed from his position as superintendent of Muang police station in Nakhon Sawan, north of Bangkok, is accused of trying to extract 2m baht (£44,463) from the suspect. He disappeared days before a video of the incident went viral on social media, but was detained by police on Thursday.
As police searched Thitisan’s home this week, Thai media showed footage of his vast, luxury estate, including a collection of expensive sports cars. He reportedly owns 29 cars worth more than 100m baht (£2.2m), which have earned him the nickname “Jo Ferrari”.
At a press conference held after his arrest, Thitisan, who was dialled in to speak to media, admitted using violence during the interrogation but said he had only been trying to obtain information about potential criminal activities. “I must testify that I didn’t have any intention to kill him. My intention was to work, to work for the people, and prevent people’s children from getting addicted to drugs,” he said.
Kissana Phathanacharoen, deputy spokesperson for Royal Thai police, said two other officers had been arrested on Thursday in relation to the case, and that a further five were arrested on Wednesday. “Disciplinary actions have also been taken against those seven police officers,” he said.
In his comment, Thitisan said: “For my subordinates, I take all responsibly [for what they did] because I ordered them. They have nothing to do with this. They tried to stop me. I take all the responsibility.”
He denied suggestions that he had been trying to extort money, stating: “We did it because it is for our job. Money isn’t involved.” He added: “Never once in my police life I have ever been corrupted.”
A recording of the interrogation shows an officer placing multiple plastic bags over the head of a handcuffed man. The man is then pushed to the floor. Police later try to revive him by carrying out CPR and pouring water on his face, but are not successful.
The man has been named by Thai media as Jeerapong Thanapat.
When Jeerapong died, Thitisan allegedly ordered officers to tell doctors the death was caused by a drug overdose, according to an account of the incident posted on Facebook by a prominent lawyer, Decha Kittiwittayanan, who said he had been contacted by intermediaries for at least one anonymous whistleblower.
The officers had tried to report the incident internally, Decha told Thai media, but no action was taken. They shared their accounts with him because they wanted the story to be made public and forwarded to the national police commissioner, he said. “They made complaints to various places. They made complaints to local media, few [well known] Facebook pages, and supervisors but nothing was done,” he said.
Footage was also sent to a different lawyer, reportedly by a junior officer who wanted the matter investigated. It was shared widely on social media, prompting public outrage and calls for reform.
Thai police already face growing criticism over its use of force, including rubber bullets, to control recent anti-establishment demonstrators in Bangkok. The response to recent protests has been disproportionate, according to rights groups, who also warn the case involving Jeerapong is far from isolated.
“This is not the first death in custody in this country. It is just one that has been caught on camera,” said Pornpen Kongkachonkiet, director of Cross Cultural Foundation, a human rights group.
“Trust in the police among the public is at rock bottom. This is yet another reminder of the urgent need for an end to police impunity and for the police force to demonstrate to the public – who pays their salaries – that they work for them,” Pornpen said.
Human Rights Watch has said the case should be a wake-up call for Thai police, and that an independent investigation was needed. “Successive Thai governments have a long history of failing to ensure accountability for even the most ghastly police abuses against people in custody,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch.