Bangkok: A major Thai police corruption probe widened Tuesday with a third high-ranking officer charged under strict royal defamation rules in what analysts say is an attempt by the military junta to strengthen their hold over police.
The investigation comes six months after the military took over in a coup and centres around a group of police officers allegedly led by Pongpat Chayapun, the head of Thailand`s elite Central Investigation Bureau, a rare move against the kingdom`s top brass.
Pongpat and two other senior officers -- his deputy Kowit Vongrongrot and marine police chief Boonsueb Praithuen -- have all been charged under Thailand`s lese majeste law as well as with a slew of bribery and corruption charges.
Under the royal defamation legislation -- one of the world`s strictest -- anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
Analysts say the investigation of such senior officers is extremely rare and pits the country`s military rulers against the police.
"The junta is trying to weaken Thailand`s police while also turning the police into a loyal tool of the army," Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, told AFP.
David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based analyst, added that it was rare to see the lese majeste law used to bring down high-ranking officials.
He said the controversial law had in recent years been more readily deployed against pro-democracy activists and members of the "red shirt" movement loyal to fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"To see this charge now against high-ranking policemen is indeed a surprise and perhaps reflects efforts by the military to dismantle the power structure of the police," he said.Both Thai and international media must heavily self-censor when covering the country`s lese majeste rules. Even repeating details of the charges could mean breaking the law under section 112 of Thailand`s criminal code.
The three senior officers, who have been dismissed from their posts, are also accused of running illegal gambling and oil rackets, police said Tuesday.
At a press conference in Bangkok, the country`s police chief displayed pictures of what he said were assets worth $61 million taken from the suspects` homes, including jewellery, ivory tusks, gold ingots, paintings and antique furniture.
"The suspects had been making false claims to gain benefits through police promotions, illegal gambling and illegal oil trading," national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung said in reference to the lese majeste charges.
Somyot did not elaborate on how the "false claims" related to the monarchy.
Police said four more officers and five civilians have also been charged in the probe, though they are not currently charged under the lese majeste law, bringing the total number of people now implicated to 12.
Somyot said he was confident further assets had been hidden, adding that Pongpat had confessed to the charges against him. Rights groups say there has been a rise in both charges and convictions under Thailand`s royal slur law since the army seized power.
Under martial law suspects are tried under military courts, where there is no right of appeal. Earlier cases were handled in civilian courts.
On Monday a website editor was convicted by a military court on lese majeste charges and sentenced to four-and-a-half-years in prison, a legal source told AFP Tuesday.
Local Thai website Prachatai said the editor, whose pen-name is Somsak Pakdeedech, ran the now-banned Thai E-News website and was jailed for publishing an article in 2009 by Giles "Ji" Ungpakorn, an academic currently living in exile in Britain who is himself wanted on lese majeste charges.
The royal family is a highly sensitive topic in the politically turbulent kingdom where 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world`s longest reigning monarch, is revered by many as a demi-god.
The law is designed to protect the monarchy from insult, but academics say it has been politicised in recent years as the king, who is currently in a Bangkok hospital, grows increasingly frail.
The coup earlier this year was the latest twist in Thailand`s long-running political conflict, which broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite, backed by parts of the military and judiciary, against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin.
In a statement published Tuesday commenting on the last half year of the junta`s rule, Human Rights Watch said freedoms in Thailand had fallen into a "bottomless pit".
"Six months after the coup, criticism is systematically prosecuted, political activity is banned, media is censored, and dissidents are tried in military courts," said the group`s Asia director Brad Adams.