A Thai court sentenced Xaysana Keopimpha, a Laotian dubbed as an “ASEAN Drug Lord,” to life in prison on Tuesday and said it spared him the death penalty over narcotics-smuggling charges because he had confessed to police during their investigation.
Xaysana, 43, headed a transnational Southeast Asian network that supplied millions of caffeine-laced methamphetamine tablets known as “yaba,” Thai authorities said after they arrested him in January 2017 at Bangkok’s main airport. The tablets were produced in Myanmar and distributed throughout Golden Triangle, which straddles Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.
“The defendant violated Narcotics Drugs Act and Drugs Suppression Act, collaborating with others to sell and smuggle drugs on various counts, therefore he is sentenced to death. Due to his confession during the investigation process, the court decreases his sentence to life imprisonment,” the court said in its verdict.
However, during his courtroom arraignment in April 2017, he recanted his confession to police and pleaded not guilty to charges of smuggling drugs and possessing them to sell.
At the time, Xaysana’s lawyer, Vorakorn Pongthanakul, said his client had confessed to a police investigator but, because Thai and Lao were similar languages, Xaysana did not understand Thai words or Thailand’s laws.
On Tuesday, Vorakorn said Xaysana would challenge the ruling.
“We’ll appeal; we have 30 days from the day of the sentencing to file the appeal and can request for extensions; for each request we’ll get an extension for another 30 days,” Vorakorn told the Lao Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.
Xaysana was arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Jan. 19, 2017, following a five-year investigation, according to Lt. Gen. Sommai Kongvisaisuk, who heads the Thai police’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau. Investigators had received a tip from Lao officials.
Court documents indicated that several members of a drug gang were arrested on Sept. 30, 2016, on suspicion of hiding 1.2 million meth pills in an SUV that stopped while crossing the First Lao-Thai Mekong Friendship Bridge. Police investigated and interrogated the suspects who revealed they were working for Xaysana.
Police identified a Malaysian suspect, Kamarudin Bin Awang, who was arrested in February 2017 by police in his home country, as the defendant’s trade partner.
Prior to his arrest, Xaysana led a flamboyant lifestyle, hanging out with Thai celebrities and a soap opera star, according to reports. Lao authorities seized his assets, which included nine luxury vehicles, five houses and a 475-acre rubber plantation.
Drug busts on rise
Meanwhile, drug-related arrests in Thailand are on the rise, according to statistics compiled by the Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau and released during a recent press briefing. In fiscal years 2016 and 2017, authorities made 456 and 453 arrests, respectively. During the first half of fiscal year 2018, at least 900 arrests have been made.
Last week, Thai officials announced the confiscation of drugs valued at 859 million baht ($27.5 million), from Mar. 8 to 12.
The seized drugs included 304 kilograms (670 pounds) of heroin believed to be destined for U.S. and European markets, Lt. Gen. Sommai said. Suspects who were arrested, according to Sommai, included three residents of Pattani, a province in Thailand’s insurgency-stricken Deep South, who were caught carrying weapons for guarding the drugs.
But while Thai officials have made more arrests and confiscated more drugs, traffickers have kept rolling out more product to make up for the losses, he said.
“The more we arrest, the more supplies come out. They release more products and more smugglers come out on streets. ... Heroin is more in demand,” Sommai told reporters last week.
“These hauls are Malaysia-bound. The insurgents helped facilitated passage through Malaysia because it has many islands where drugs can be kept before being shipped to Europe and America.”