Ex-Thai cop ‘Jo Ferrari,’ 5 others sentenced to life for fatal interrogation

Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Subel Rai Bhandari
Ex-Thai cop ‘Jo Ferrari,’ 5 others sentenced to life for fatal interrogation Janjira Tanapat (left), mother of Jirapong Tanapat, walks with her husband, police Lt. Chakkrit Klandee, after hearing the sentencing in a Bangkok courthouse of seven Thai police convicted of the fatal torture of their son while in custody last year, June 8, 2022.
Wilawan Watcharasakwet/BenarNews

Six Thai policemen will spend the rest of their lives in prison for the in-custody death of a drug suspect whose brutal interrogation – handcuffed, with plastic bags over his head – was caught on video last year, a court ruled Wednesday.

The most senior officer in the group, former Police Col. Thitisan Utthanaphon, who is nicknamed “Jo Ferrari” because of his fleet of expensive cars, headed the Muang district police station in Nakhon Sawan province.

He and six fellow officers were arrested in August 2021 after CCTV footage showing them allegedly torturing the suspect, Jirapong Tanapat, while trying to extort a bribe of 2 million baht (U.S. $57,900) from him, was leaked and went viral on social media. The case grabbed national headlines too because it is relatively uncommon for police officers in Thailand to be prosecuted and convicted for serious crimes.

On Wednesday, the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct in Bangkok found the defendants guilty on all four charges against them. At first, the court condemned them to death but then downgraded their sentences to life behind bars.

“The court convicted defendants no. 1 to 5 and no. 7 of premeditated killing by way of torture, the most severe charge, and sentenced them to death, according to Section 90 of the Penal Code,” according to the court sheet viewed by BenarNews.

“Because the defendants were helpful during the hearings and tried to save the life of the [suspect] and rushed him to the hospital to regain vital signs though he finally died. Therefore, the [death] sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.” 

A seventh defendant confessed to some of the charges and received a five-year, four-month sentence.

Jirapong’s parents, who were in the courtroom, cried as they heard the sentences.

“I’m satisfied with the verdict … but I can’t bear it. It was too much how my son was tortured as the court elaborated,” police Lt. Chakkrit Klandee, the dead man’s father, told reporters outside the courthouse. “I was shocked, [my son] was handcuffed and even fettered at the ankles. That was way too much [to handle].” 

The victim’s mother, Janjira Tanapat, said she was not satisfied because the six were not sentenced to death.

“I would like them gone like my son,” she told reporters.

Chakkrit said his family plans to sue the defendants for 1.5 million baht ($43,400), adding they had received an initial 330,000 baht ($9,500) for cremation and other costs.

All seven defendants faced charges of malfeasance, misconduct, joint murder through torture and group coercion. Thitisan, 40, had confessed to all counts except for the fatal torture, while the other five defendants denied all charges.

The defendants remained in Bangkok’s Klong Prem Central Prison where they learned their fate through a video conference, and have a month to appeal the verdict, according to their lawyers.

Thitisan Utthanaphon, former chief of the Muang district police station, leaves the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok after surrendering to Thai authorities, Aug. 26, 2021. [AFP]

The leaked video caused a public uproar because it showed police brutality against a suspect in detention. It showed the officers covering Jirapong’s face with plastic bags and demanding he pay the bribe on Aug. 5, 2021, after being taken to the Nakhon Sawan police station the evening before on suspicion of dealing drugs.

Police initially claimed he accidently fell and collapsed while trying to escape.

Jirapong was pronounced dead at a Nakhon Sawan hospital. The hospital changed its original Aug. 6, 2021, autopsy report to note that he had died of suffocation and not a drug overdose.

Those findings were confirmed in October 2021.

Setting precedent

A former national human rights commissioner said the verdict reflected the findings of the investigation.

“There was clear evidence in this case. We hope the national police bureau takes it as a lesson to improve their investigation practices to align with the suspect’s right to protection,” Angkhana Neelapaijit told BenarNews.

She said it would help “create measures to prevent police’s torture of people during detention.”

Another activist said the ruling “may set a precedent to hold government officials accountable promptly through a judicial process and face punishment commensurate to the gravity of the crime.”

“This may help address the culture of impunity in other previous cases. It may also allude to the question if the injured parties and their relatives have been appropriately remedied or not,” said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, the director of Cross-Cultural Foundation, an organization documenting torture and abuses.

A police officer holds a plastic bag over a drug suspect’s head in Nakhon Sawan, Thailand, Aug. 5, 2021, in this still image obtained from a social media video. [YouTube/Sittra Lawyer/via Reuters]

Officer surrendered

Thitisan got the nickname from his fleet of at least 29 luxury cars, including a Lamborghini. He also owned a luxury home on a two-acre lot in Bangkok.

He surrendered to senior officers on Aug. 26, 2021, after a two-day chase. Questioned by Thai journalists about his wealth, Thitisan, who joined the force in 2004, insisted he was a clean public official.

 “In my civil servant life, I have never been corrupt,” he said at the time.

After his arrest, national Police Chief Suwat Changyodsuk allowed Thitisan to talk to reporters via speaker phone during a news conference. Thitisan used the opportunity to present what he described as the “enhanced interrogation” of Jirapong, saying it was undertaken as a public duty to prevent Thai youths from becoming addicts.

During their investigation, authorities recovered 131 million baht ($3.8 million) in assets believed to be linked to the seizure and auction of hundreds of cars allegedly imported illegally.

“We found he allegedly wrongly reported hundreds of arrests involving smuggled cars even though we cannot verify where hundreds of them were coming from,” Gen. Suchart Teerasawat, the deputy national police chief, told reporters in November 2021.

Police said that during Thitisan’s 2011-2017 stint as an officer in Narathiwat, a border province in Thailand’s Deep South, he arrested suspects and confiscated more than 300 cars smuggled in from nearby Malaysia, which had a lower tax rate. The Customs Department said he was eligible for rewards linked to the confiscations.


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