A former Thai police chief who went on the run after allegedly torturing a suspect to death has surrendered. Thitisan Utthanaphon, nicknamed “Jo Ferrari”, admitted to mistreating the suspect but denied any corruption.
He spoke to the media in an unusual press conference organized by the police on Thursday night. Mr Thitisan had fled his post after a video showing the apparent torture and killing of a drug suspect was leaked, causing public outrage.
The footage, which was reportedly filmed by a junior officer, shows several policemen wrapping plastic bags around the head of a 24-year-old arrested for selling methamphetamine pills. The suspect had allegedly refused to pay a bribe. Mr Thitisan and six others at a police station in Nakhon Sawan, 250km (150 miles) north of Bangkok, were accused of being responsible for the fatal incident, which took place earlier this month.
The 39-year-old former police superintendent went on the run, but gave himself up on Thursday evening in Chon Buri province, hundreds of kilometres from his station. In a last-minute press conference organised by Thai police in Bangkok, Mr Thitisan answered questions from reporters over a mobile phone that was held up to a microphone. It is not common for Thai police to allow suspects to speak to media immediately after their arrest.
Mr Thitisan claimed the suspect’s death was an “accident”. “I did not intend to kill him… I intended to get the information so I can destroy the drug business,” he added. He said it was the first time he had ever treated a suspect this way, adding that multiple bags were used to cover the suspect’s head because he kept trying to remove them. Mr Thitisan also insisted that he had not tried to extort money. “My subordinates just followed my order and I take sole responsibility,” he added.
According to local reports, the alleged torture occurred after the suspect was told to double a bribe that had been agreed for his release and that of his girlfriend. He was ordered to pay 2 million baht (£45,000; $61,000) to have his charges dropped and was attacked when he refused, according to The Bangkok Post newspaper, which cited a whistleblower’s complaint lodged with the police.
The video shows attempts to revive the man, but he died from suffocation. The officer allegedly told subordinates to list the cause of death as a drug overdose. Mr Thitisan’s moniker is an apparent reference to his expensive tastes. On Wednesday a search of Mr Thitisan’s luxury estate in Bangkok revealed 13 supercars. How do you put a positive spin on a video showing a senior police officer suffocating a suspect in custody with a plastic bag?
Thai national police chief General Suwat Jangyodsok decided the best strategy was to seek sympathy for Colonel Thitisan; he had agreed to surrender to save the honour of the force, he told journalists. He allowed him to express, through a phone, his remorse to the crowd of waiting journalists. We were even told that Colonel Ferrari was contemplating suicide. Many Thais have pointed out that there was little honour to save. The police force is almost universally ridiculed in Thailand for its incompetence, its corruption, and for putting on bizarre spectacles like this one for journalists.
Who can forget the police awarding themselves, at a press conference, an $80,000 reward for catching two suspects in the 2015 Bangkok bombing, although six years later neither suspect has been tried in court? Or the practice, not unique to Thailand in this region, of making suspects re-enact the crimes of which they are accused in front of the public? Or the litany of laughable excuses given over nine years for failing to arrest the heir to the wealthy Red Bull business, who allegedly killed a police officer while driving his Ferrari at speed?
Thai media have noted that action against Colonel Ferrari was only taken, two and half weeks after the incident, when the video was leaked. Few believe much would have happened to him without the leak. His spectacular collection of luxury cars and properties, on a salary of perhaps $1,500 a month has raised fewer eyebrows here. Senior police officers in Thailand are often conspicuously wealthy. Promotion is widely presumed to involve spending huge sums of money for the required backing. Policing is sometime described as more of a business than a public service. The details emerging from this case will only confirm that view.