BANGKOK - Thai police have apologised for an incident in which officers allegedly extorted money from a Taiwanese actress who was visiting Bangkok.
The actress, Charlene An, had posted on social media that she was out with friends in the early hours of Jan 5 when the incident occurred.
She said they were travelling in a Grab taxi after a night out in the Thai capital when they were stopped and searched at a checkpoint.
An, 33, said she was threatened with a criminal charge for having a vaping device or e-cigarette. She paid 27,000 baht (S$1,080) before she and her friends were able to leave.
An’s allegation against the Thai police caught the attention of netizens in both Taiwan and Thailand. The Thai police initially disputed her claims, but a fact-finding committee was set up on Jan 26 to investigate the case.
On Monday, the fact-finding panel filed charges against the seven police officers.
It accused them of “committing malfeasance or nonfeasance to cause damage against a particular person or committing dereliction of duty with dishonest intention”.
Also on Monday, the Metropolitan Police Bureau set up another disciplinary panel to probe the seven policemen.
“There are still many good police. We must encourage the good ones and deal with the bad ones,” national police chief Damrongsak Kittiprapas told reporters at the police headquarters on Tuesday.
“I would like to stress that our city has lots of visitors coming. Immigration police, tourist police and local police must take the best care of tourists. And for the incident that happened, if there is wrongdoing, as the head of the organisation, I apologise to the victims affected by what happened,” he said.
Anyone found guilty will be punished, he added.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha also weighed in on the issue.
He ordered concerned agencies to look into the extortion claim, stressing that the real offenders must be punished without exception.
“This problem is deep-rooted. We need to separate the good (police) from the bad (police), and true offenders must face punishment” he said.
The seven police officers from Bangkok’s Huay Kwang Police Station have been transferred and charged with dereliction of duty.
These are two captains, two senior sergeant majors and three sergeants who were at the checkpoint.
The officers have been transferred to inactive positions while an investigation is ongoing, the police said.
An had told Taiwanese media in January that the Thai police officers put a vaping device in her hand and that she did not know what it was. She said she was charged with having an illegal e-cigarette device in her possession.
The police subsequently took her into an alley and extorted the money from her, she claimed. The actress also alleged that she and her friends were detained for two hours.
When An dropped the bombshell on the Thai police, several Thai TV stations began pointing to discrepancies in her claims.
Thai media questioned the length of time she claimed to have been detained at the checkpoint and her claim that police had planted a vaping device on her.
Local TV stations broadcast closed-circuit television footage showing that she and her friends were at the checkpoint for 47 minutes, not two hours as she claimed.
They also shared footage showing she owned and used a vaping device before and after being stopped at the checkpoint.
While her accusations were being questioned by Thai media, whistle-blowing former politician and massage parlour tycoon Chuwit Kamolvisit jumped to her rescue on Monday.
He said he had a clip showing one of An’s friends handing money to a plainclothes policeman.
He also claimed that the police officers involved had asked for incriminating CCTV footage to be deleted, released those that discredited An and persuaded the Grab taxi driver to lie about the incident.
In an Instagram post on Tuesday morning, An, who has returned to Taiwan, said: “Thank you BBC and all participating media from Taiwan for taking your precious time to listen & to share the truth.
“Thank you to all for your words of encouragement, support & care to help me walk through this moment of traumatic ‘darkness’.”
An also thanked Mr Chuwit for his assistance, who said he was sorry on behalf of all Thais, and hoped Taiwanese people would forget about this incident and continue visiting Thailand.
“I believe you will still find Thailand an attractive destination,” Mr Chuwit said in his response.
In a Facebook post, Mr Chuwit said a Singapore national who paid the police the 27,000 baht on An’s behalf was to meet him on Tuesday.
The import and sale of e-cigarettes is banned in Thailand, and the possession of such devices is unlawful.
Though the Thai police do not normally go after users of e-cigarette devices, they are required by law not to turn a blind eye once they spot someone having such a device. THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK