SMOOTHENING SONDHI PROBE : Police chief goes on month’s leave

patcharawat_2

 Compromise reached by Abhisit and Suthep

Police chief Patcharawat Wongsuwan has taken leave of about 30 days from his office, giving Pol General Thanee Somboonsap a free hand in his investigation into the assassination attempt on media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul.

Patcharawat’s leave is a result of a compromise between Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban, the deputy prime minister, who has been keen to protect the police chief. Abhisit has been under pressure to sack Patcharawat, who is understood to have stood in the way of Thanee’s investigation.

Abhisit took an unusual step by holding an impromptu news conference at The Emporium department store in Bangkok and announcing Patcharawat’s leave. He was supposed to hold the news conference earlier in the morning, but it had to be delayed due to further behind-the-scenes negotiations for the best face-saving way out.

Abhisit said that starting next week, Patcharawat would take leave for 10 days, after which period he would be allowed to rest further so that the police chief would be out of his office for about a month. This move was initiated by Patcharawat himself, who also recommended that the annual reshuffle of police officers be suspended for the time being.

Abhisit did not spell out the person who would succeed or replace Patcharawat during his absence, but it is understood that Thanee’s role will expand as he is ready to issue arrest warrants for more suspects allegedly involved in the attempted murder of Sondhi.

“The police chief should not take leave until his mandatory retirement [in October]. I believe that during this time there should be enough time to complete the investigation into the Sondhi case,” Abhisit said.

Panthep Wongphuaphand, a spokesman of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, told ASTV that Patcharawat’s leave would be a good way out. “I hope that the investigation of the Sondhi case will be able to carry on without anybody’s losing face.”

The case has reached a climax. Thanee and his team have issued arrest warrants for two suspects, one a junior military officer and the other a police officer attached to the Department of Special Investigation. Sondhi has accused the military in power, including some key elements of the red shirts, of being masterminds behind the attempt to kill him in April this year. If successful, the killing would have created political turmoil to the extent that a military intervention would have been justified.

More specifically, Sondhi has charged that 13 military officers and one police officer were involved in the attempted assassination. If Thanee could issue a second round of arrest warrants for the middle-level suspects, he would then be one step away from the masterminds in the Sondhi case.

Abhisit is under pressure from the Democrat Party to proceed with the Sondhi case and to remove anybody standing in the way. Sondhi and his yellow-shirted supporters are ready to come onto the streets to rally against Abhisit if the prime minister were to let the murder case lie dead in the water.

At the same time, the police and military in power, as well as the Bhumjai Thai coalition partner, have threatened to withdraw their support of the government if Abhisit were to sack Patcharawat. Suthep, who has been giving full backing to Patcharawat, is reported to have flown off to Hong Kong to avoid the growing political turbulence at home.

By Thanong Khanthong
The Nation
Published on August 1, 2009

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