PHUKET — Fifteen police officers across the island of Phuket were placed under investigation Friday for allegedly arresting and extorting more than 100 foreigners.
The probe into alleged massive graft involving tourist, immigration and regular police was launched after a citizen journalist accused the force of routinely rounding up foreign workers and their foreign employers on the island in exchange for payouts.
While a police spokesman dismissed the accusation earlier this week, a top police commander ordered an investigation Friday, calling it a national security matter.
“There were complaints from the media that foreigners were arrested,” deputy police commissioner Srivara Ransibrahmanakul told reporters. “In the past several days, around 100 were arrested.”
Fifteen officers from five police stations – Phuket City, Kamala, Karon, Saku and Katu – were named in the investigation. They are mostly deputy station chiefs and inspectors.
Regional police commander Teerapol Kuptanon, who’s been appointed to head the investigation, said there is no time-frame for completing the inquiry. He also said all 15 officers named in the probe will remain on duty while the inquiry is conducted.
“We cannot yet say whether they did anything wrong,” Maj. Gen. Teerapol said in phone interview. “We are making everything fair for all sides involved.”
Gen. Srivara said the inquiry is specifically looking into why approximately 150 foreigners were arrested from the beginning of October and not transferred to immigration bureau for deportation per regulations.
Instead, they were freed, which constitutes a national security breach, said the deputy police commissioner.
The complaint was first brought to public attention one month ago by a Facebook user posting as Spotlight Phuket. In his videos, the narrator, who identifies himself as Joe, said officers from multiple police departments in Phuket routinely extort and take bribes from foreigners working on the island, amounting to at least 100 million baht per month.
He laid out a racket in which tourist police and their volunteers shook down the foreign community, mostly those from the Middle East and South Asia, in coordination with local police and the immigration police. Srivara said investigations into those other agencies were ongoing.
Srivara said the committee will establish whether the officers who made the arrests let the suspects go in exchange with money. However, he added that a separate inquiry is underway into the racketeering estimated to run up to 100 million baht per month.
After publishing a series of videos about the alleged extortion scheme, “Joe” from Spotlight Phuket traveled to Bangkok to deliver a petition to the central police headquarters on Oct. 31.
The police have not identified him publicly, and Joe did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday.
Police spokesman Krissana Pattanacharoen was quoted as saying that the complaint could be an attempt to discredit the force by those who lost financial interests in the latest crackdown on illegal networks.
Srivara said on Friday that the investigation may expand to include higher ranking officers or their commanders.
“[The committee] has to find out who’s involved,” the police general said.