Search for two top monks ratchets up

Search for two top monks ratchets up

Cops talk with aides to press for surrender

Police search Wat Sa Ket for a second time on Friday. The target of the search was the living quarters of abbot Phra Phrom Sitthi. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)
Police search Wat Sa Ket for a second time on Friday. The target of the search was the living quarters of abbot Phra Phrom Sitthi. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)

Two senior monks wanted for alleged temple fund embezzlement remain in the country as police are holding talks with their close associates to convince them to surrender, Central Investigation Bureau commissioner (CIB) Thitiraj Nhongharnpitak said.

Police are hunting the two senior monks -- Wat Sa Ket abbot Phra Phrom Sitthi and Wat Samphanthawong assistant abbot Phra Phrom Methee.

The monks are thought to have dodged arrest when some 200 police commandos made coordinated raids on three temples in Bangkok and one temple in Nakhon Pathom on Thursday.

During the raids, six senior monks including Phra Buddha Isara were arrested, defrocked, and are now being detained in jail.

Five of the monks have been accused of temple fund embezzlement and were denied bail by the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases. They were all being detained at the same prison.

Two of them are from Wat Sam Phraya -- abbot Phra Phrom Dilok and his secretary, Phra Atthakit Sophon. Three are from Wat Sa ket -- assistant abbots Phra Sri Khunaporn, Phra Wichit Thammaporn and Phra Khru Siriwihankan.

The former Phra Buddha Isara faces charges of ang-yee (running an illegal secret organisation), and forging royal names.

Pol Lt Gen Thitiraj confirmed that Phra Phrom Sitthi and Phra Phrom Methee were still in the country and police were negotiating with their close aides to persuade them to turn themselves in to police.

"There have been positive signs in the negotiations. We want them to prove themselves in the justice system," Pol Lt Gen Thitiraj said.

The investigation is expected to be broadened to find out who else was involved in the temple embezzlement scandal, Pol Lt Gen Thitiraj said.

Crime Suppression Division (CSD) police and forensic officers obtained a fresh warrant to search Wat Sa Ket for a second time on Friday. The target of the search was the living quarters (kuti) of abbot Phra Phrom Sitthi.

Pol Lt Col Kittimate Chotipiticharoenrat of the CSD said that the search focused mainly on financial transaction documents.

Pol Col Anuraj Jitsil from the Central Police Forensic Science Division, said DNA evidence was gathered to find links to other people who might have been involved in the scandal.

National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) secretary-general Worawit Sookboon said that he has instructed a panel inquiry to look into the temple fund embezzlement scandal and present the case to the NACC next week.

The temple fund embezzlement scandal, in which fraud involving millions of baht has been uncovered, allegedly involves state officials, civilians and monks.

Certain temples are accused of taking part in what is called an "exchange money" scheme. This is when state officials grant fund money to the temples but in return ask them to return part of that money to their private accounts.

CSD chief Pol Maj Gen Maitree Chimcherd said on Friday police are looking for the two senior monks who are still at large. The CSD will ask the Immigration Bureau to blacklist the two monks and stop them from leaving the country.

He said that police were verifying security camera footage allegedly showing a black pick-up truck waiting to pick up Phra Phrom Sitthi, the abbot of Wat Sa Ket before the police raid.

A source who is part of the investigation team said that a senior monk who was implicated in the embezzlement scandal was suspected of committing sexual misconduct which is a gross violation of the monastic code of conduct.

Thirayuth Suwannakaysorn, a lawyer representing defrocked Phra Buddha Isara, said on Friday his client had acknowledged only the charge of forging and using the royal initials of the late king Bhumibol and Her Majesty the Queen of the late king without royal permission in the production of a batch of amulets.

The lawyer said his client had no intention to insult the monarchy.

The former monk will fight another charge of running an illegal secret organisation, he said.

The first offence allegedly took place in 2011 when Wat Or Noi in Kamphaeng Saen district in Nakhon Pathom cast nak prok amulets with the royal initials on the back.

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