Cars, guns and watches seized as Thai royal insult probe widens

Thailand national police chief Jakthip Chaijinda holding a confiscated weapon during a news conference at the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok on Oct 28, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thai police on Wednesday (Oct 28) widened a major probe into a network of people charged with insulting the monarchy, which has seen three people charged and eight police officers demoted so far.

Television footage of a police news conference in Bangkok showed photographs of guns and luxury cars, watches, religious amulets and guitars seized in a probe that has led to the arrest of three people who allegedly claimed false connections to the royal family for personal gain.

"These people made others wrongly believe that they were close to the monarchy... Their actions caused damage to the royal institution," police chief Jakthip Chaijinda told reporters.

Altogether, police are investigating 13 cases dating back to August, said Central Investigation Bureau commissioner Thitiraj Nhongharnpitak, adding that more arrest warrants would be issued.

The probe has heightened scrutiny of the world's toughest lese majeste law. Critics say the law is often used as a political tool to discredit and silence opponents.

Thailand's 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is seen as semi-divine by many Thais, but this view is hard to challenge when law can make anything deemed an insult or threat to the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

The king told an audience in 2005 that he should not be above criticism. That has not stopped prosecutions under laws protecting the monarchy from sky-rocketing since a coup last May toppled an elected government.

Police said the latest probe was linked to a high-profile corruption scandal in 2014 involving Pongpat Chayaphan, a former Central Investigation Bureau chief and uncle of former Princess Srirasmi.

Srirasmi resigned from her royal post in December at the height of that investigation which embroiled top police officers, army sergeants, one of Thailand's richest men and relatives of the former princess.

In the latest probe, the three men were charged last week with allegedly falsely claiming ties to the monarchy.

One of them, Police Major Prakrom Warunprapa, died in custody on Friday after he hanged himself in his cell at an army detention facility, the corrections department said.

His body was not sent for a post-mortem examination, the department said, and was handed over to his family for religious rites.

The suspects still in custody are a fortune teller and his secretary.

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