Thai PM Prayut says law applies to tycoon accused of poaching

Park authorities arresting Thai construction tycoon Premchai Karnasuta (centre) in Thungyai Naresuan national park in Kanchanaburi province on Feb 6, 2018.

BANGKOK (AFP) - A Thai tycoon charged with poaching a leopard in a national park will not escape justice despite his wealth, the country's junta leader vowed on Thursday (Feb 8), as public outcry rages over impunity for the kingdom's rich and powerful.

Construction magnate Premchai Karnasuta was arrested along with three others on Sunday night by rangers who stumbled upon their camp in a wildlife sanctuary in western Thailand.

They seized guns, ammunition and animal carcasses including a rare black leopard, leading to police charges for hunting in the national reserve and poaching a protected species.

Premchai is the president of the publicly traded Italian-Thai Development, a Bangkok-based company that helped build Thailand's Suvarnabhumi airport and the city's skytrain public transit system known as the BTS.

He has denied the charges and was swiftly granted bail for under US$5,000 (S$6,646), stirring Thai social media into life fearing the multi-millionaire may evade justice like other mega-rich suspects in a kingdom where power and wealth is often wielded to dodge the law.

Amid mounting outcry junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha said whoever tries to interfere in the case "risks being punished." If he is found guilty "it's not possible to help (Premchai), guilty is guilty no matter how big he is," he said.

Prayut's comments followed the leaking of an unverified audio clip purporting to be from the night of Premchai's arrest in which an unidentified voice discusses the influence of "senior people" in the context of a "loophole in the law".

A deputy police chief said 10 park officials will be questioned to ascertain if they were bribed to allow Premchai's private safari.

"I can assure you that no-one can lobby to clear this case," Police General Srivara Rangsibhramanakul told reporters on Thursday (Feb 8).

The tycoon's case comes as a separate scandal swirls over the junta's number two, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is being investigated over a collection of undeclared luxury watches.

The Thai junta seized power in 2014 vowing to expunge graft from politics and society.

But critics say it has failed and is clinging onto power too long.

Premchai's predicament has deepened over the week. A police raid on Wednesday on one of his Bangkok properties found weapons and ivory tusks.

In the court of public opinion many are already lining up against the besieged tycoon.

The Thungyai Naresuan national park where Premchai was arrested is in tourist-friendly Kanchanaburi province and hosts wild elephants and tigers among its endangered species.

The slain animals at the campsite were a black leopard, a Kalij pheasant and a red muntjac or barking deer - protected species under Thai conservation law.

Italian-Thai Development has not responded to requests for comment but Premchai denied the charges in local media.

General Surasak Karnjanarat, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, on Thursday added his weight to the investigation saying "it is quite clear that they did something illegal."

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