BANGKOK (AP) — Thai authorities arrested a fifth police officer in connection with the death of a drug dealer who was allegedly killed while being shaken down in custody for cash, but were still searching Thursday for two others, including the suspected ringleader, a police colonel accused of funding a lavish lifestyle through corruption.
A police sergeant from the Muang district station, in a province north of Bangkok, was apprehended late Wednesday. All five suspects in custody, including a major and a captain, were brought Thursday before a judge who was to rule on whether they should be held on charges of dereliction of duty, torture and murder.
Authorities are still searching for a police lieutenant as well as Col. Thitisan Utthanaphon, who was chief of the station in Nakhon Sawan province and disappeared shortly before a video surfaced on social media that appears to show him directing the assault on the suspect that lead to the 24-year-old’s death.
The colonel, who earned the nickname “Jo Ferrari” due to his penchant for sports cars, had a collection of 29 luxury automobiles worth more than 100 million baht ($3 million), some of which he kept at a home in Bangkok worth about 60 million baht ($1.8 million), Thai media reported.
One of the cars found at the house, a yellow Lamborghini, was purchased by Thitisan from a car company that was involved in a tax evasion investigation two years ago, the police Department of Special Investigation said. Thitisan was not charged in that case.
In their search for him and Lt. Thoranin Matwanna, Thai police have asked neighboring countries to be on the lookout in case they have already managed to get across the border.
Allegations of police brutality and corruption are not uncommon in Thailand, and Human Rights Watch called Thursday for a transparent, outside investigation.
“A prosecution fully independent of the Thai police is needed if there is any hope of justice,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director.
“Successive Thai governments have a long history of failing to ensure accountability for even the most ghastly police abuses against people in custody,” he said.
Police started investigating the case only after a well-known lawyer, Decha Kittiwittayanan, published an account of it on his Facebook page on Sunday.
Decha said he had received a complaint from a junior policeman in Nakhon Sawan who said that police had arrested two drug suspects, the 24-year-old man and his female companion, with more than 100,000 methamphetamine tablets.
The policemen first demanded 1 million baht ($30,560) from the suspects, which they agreed to pay for their release, according to the account. But then Thitisan demanded double that amount and ordered his subordinates to cover the male suspect’s head with a plastic bag and beat him until he agreed, said the junior policeman, whose name was not revealed.
When the suspect died, Thitisan allegedly ordered his men to take the body to the hospital and tell the doctor the death was caused by a drug overdose. The junior policeman said the woman was released but told not to say anything about it, and that Thitisan paid the victim’s father to remain silent.
The initial police response to the furor over the story posted by the lawyer was to transfer Thitisan to another post.
On Tuesday, however, a video clip of the incident was shared on the Facebook page of another lawyer, Sittra Biabanggerd, who said he had received it from a police officer at the Nakhon Sawan station where all but one of the suspects worked.
It shows the male suspect in handcuffs being led into a room, his head covered with a black plastic bag.
He is then assaulted and thrown to the floor by officers who put more bags on his head. One of them appears to briefly kneel on him until he goes limp.
Police on Thursday urged people to stop sharing the video, saying it harms “the victim’s dignity and affects an ongoing investigation.”
Story: David Rising. Associated Press reporters Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul and Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.