Police hunt one of Thailand's richest men in graft scandal

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's police on Wednesday said they are hunting one of the kingdom's richest men as part of a sprawling graft probe that has rocked the country's elite.

Energy tycoon Nopporn Suppipat is the latest high-profile figure to fall foul of the ever-widening corruption scandal, which has already snared several top cops and saw the family of a Thai princess stripped of their honorific title. "The military court approved his arrest warrant on Dec 1 on charges of lese majeste and illegal detention," Lieutenant-General Prawut Thavornsiri told AFP.

Mr Nopporn was ranked Thailand's 31st richest man in 2013 by Forbes magazine, with an estimated fortune of US$800 million (S$1.05 billion), and is thought to be on the run. He is alleged to have hired men to abduct a businessman in Bangkok in order to have a debt he owed relieved, the police spokesman added.

US-educated Mr Nopporn, reported to be in his early 40s, is the founder of Wind Energy Holdings, which operates lucrative wind power plants. "It is likely he has fled Thailand," the spokesman said, adding the police are mulling over warrants for two more people over the corruption case.

Twenty-two people have been arrested so far in a case that has cast light on graft at the highest echelons of the force as the junta-backed police chief trumpets an apparently fearless anti-corruption crusade.

But it has also seen the palace fall under a rare spotlight after Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn asked the country's junta to ban anyone from using the surname "Akkharapongpricha".

Three people with the surname - an honorific given to relatives of Princess Srirasmi following her marriage to the Crown Prince - were arrested last week on graft charges.

Princess Srirasmi married the Crown Prince in 2001 and was most recently seen in public last week accompanying her husband at a royal ceremony.

They have a son who is thought to be Prince Vajiralongkorn's most likely heir.

The graft case exploded at the end of November when three senior officers - including the head of the elite Central Investigation Bureau - were arrested on a string of bribery charges.

Some of those detained were also charged with lese majeste, with police saying they had made "false claims" about a royal to justify committing crimes that allegedly ranged from running illegal casinos to oil smuggling, kidnapping and extortion.

Thailand's monarchy is protected by strict lese majeste laws. Both local and international media must heavily self-censor when covering the country's royal family.

Under section 112 of Thailand's criminal code anyone convicted of defaming, insulting or threatening the King, Queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.

Even repeating details of the charges could mean breaking the law.