Just a few of the names associated with Thailand’s failure to deliver justice appeared likely to add Thitisan “Chief Joe” Utthanaphon, if last night’s problematic news conference was any indication.
After the arrest of Thitisan, who was filmed suffocating a suspect – some speculate rival– to death, he was invited into a police conference late last night in which he fielded questions from reporters in a scene very different from the treatment given to suspected killers.
The verdict in the court of public opinion was swift: The fix was in, and any pretense of justice in a case involving a wealthier-than-possible cop was already abandoned.
“I would like to ask if ordinary people were photographed as having tortured others to death, would police set up a stage for them to sit for an interview with reporters?” political science professor Prajak Kongkeerati tweeted. “Why don’t the police take [Chief Joe] into custody and investigate him immediately? This is embarrassing and unbelievable.”
After turning himself in yesterday in Chonburi province – not Myanmar as initially reported – he was brought to the Crime Suppression Division headquarters in Bangkok for the presser, according to the bureau’s Maj. Gen. Jirapop Bhuridej.
There, the police gave him a platform to portray the fatal torture of a 24-year-old man as a noble act.
Thitisan admitted to causing his death but played the patriotic cop card, saying he “did it for the Thai people, so that they do not become drug addicts.”
Call it the Duterte defense.
The Nakhon Sawan City police chief, who’s been fired since a video of the killing was leaked by a station whistleblower, denied that he was trying to torture THB2 million (US$60,000) from Jirapong Thanapatto, who was suspected of drug trafficking. He claimed that he only meant to squeeze more information about him.
“We only wanted to do our job. It had nothing to do with money,” Thitisan said as police brass nodded.
Why wrap his head in multiple plastic bags? Because the guy was putting up a fight, he said, despite the video’s clear evidence otherwise.
Asked by a reporter why he would have done that, the former top city cop also known as “Joe Ferrari” for his extensive collection of ultra-expensive sports cars, said he “did not want him to see my face,” and that the man was trying to remove the bag that was killing him.
The press conference, broadcast live last night, was met with anger. Anger at yet another example of Thailand’s broken justice system that places anyone with enough wealth or power beyond the reach of accountability.
“After listening to Chief Joe’s statement, I feel like it was read from a prepared script to help his fellow cops get away with the crime later,” tweeted Pichai Naripthaphan, a former energy minister under the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. “I cannot help but think that they were in this together, so that the case won’t escalate to other [senior] authorities.”
Rumors have spread online that Chief Joe was involved in drug trafficking for some of Thailand’s most powerful figures.
“Successive Thai governments have a long history of failing to ensure accountability for even the most ghastly police abuses against people in custody,” Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch said in a statement yesterday.
In a clip widely shared last night, cops saluted the disgraced police chief while he was being taken.
— Chaelisa V2 (@ChaelisaV2) August 26, 2021
#ChiefJoe has been trending on Thai Twitter since the video emerged Tuesday, now joined by #BastardJoePleaseStopBullshiting. Some critics have said the media should stop using the honorific “chief” when referring to him.
Thursday night’s Q&A session was abruptly brought to an end by national police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk after a reporter asked how Thitisan felt about an anonymous junior officer blowing the whistle on his actions.
Suwat also said he’d pleaded with Thitisan to turn himself in to protect the “honor” of Thai police.
Anger toward the force, which on a good day is held in low regard, has been swelling since officers have ramped up violent attacks on protesters and civilians, including shooting them in the head with rubber bullets and the suspected use of live rounds.
Despite initial reports Thursday afternoon that said Chief Joe had been apprehended in Myanmar, the authorities later said he turned himself in after fleeing southeast of Bangkok to Chonburi.
All seven officers involved in the fatal torture of Jirapong are now in custody and have been charged with negligence of duty, torture and murder.
Correction: A photo in an earlier version of this story misidentified national police chief Gen. Suwat Jangyodsuk.