Kamnan Poh behind bars

Kamnan Poh behind bars

Police arrest fugitive on tollway after 2-month operation

Somchai Khunploem, left, is taken for questioning at the interrogation centre of the Crime Suppression Division.
Somchai Khunploem, left, is taken for questioning at the interrogation centre of the Crime Suppression Division.

After almost seven years on the run, Somchai Khunploem, better known as Kamnan Poh, is now behind bars.

The arrest of the former mayor of Saen Suk municipality at Lat Krabang motorway's toll gate was the culmination of a top-secret police operation spanning more than two months.

Somchai, once dubbed the "Godfather of Chon Buri",s was convicted in March last year in absentia by the Supreme Court for masterminding the murder of political rival Prayoon Sitthichoke at a wedding reception in March 2003. He was handed a sentence of 25 years in prison.

He was found guilty of plotting the murder in June 2004 by the Criminal Court. The ruling was upheld by the Appeal Court in October 2006.

Somchai went on the run in early 2006, shortly before he was sentenced in absentia by the Supreme Court to five years and four months in prison for corruption involving the 1992 sale of a site in a forest reserve in tambon Khao Mai Kaew for use as a garbage dump.

The combined jail sentence for his two cases is 30 years and four months.

He was long believed to have taken shelter in Cambodia, but then rumours surfaced that he had returned to Chon Buri. Somchai was spotted from time to time in the province.

Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) commissioner Lt Gen Pongpat Chaiyaphan ordered a secret operation to capture Somchai after receiving tip-offs about his movements in Chon Buri.

Pol Lt Gen Pongpat assigned Pol Col Arthip Taennil, of the Crime Suppression Division (CSD), to form a team which in late December was able to verify that Somchai was holed up in his house.

The arrest became imminent when Pol Col Arthip's unit confirmed Somchai would visit a city hospital Wednesday.

The police followed his black Lexus sedan from his home in Chon Buri to Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital in Bangkok. Somchai left the hospital in the same vehicle about 10am, heading back to Chon Buri.

A 10-man police team lay in wait for him at Lat Krabang toll gate.

When the Lexus pulled up at the toll gate, the police made their move.

Somchai was in the back seat and there were two other people in the vehicle. One was identified as Winai Ponpaipal, 50, chief of tambon Samet, and the other was a female doctor.

A police officer jumped in the car and drove off to the CSD. Somchai did not resist.

Pol Lt Gen Pongpat then alerted the media about an impending press conference on the arrest of a high-profile figure, but kept his identity secret.

Somchai was questioned for two and a half hours by Pol Lt Gen Pongpat and CSD commander Pol Maj Gen Supisal Pakdinaruenart.

Six rounds of bullets and a large amount of medicine prescribed to a Mr Kim sae Tang, believed to be an alias of Somchai, were found in a search of the vehicle, police said.

Pol Col Arthip said that with Kamnan Poh now behind bars, he was not worried that some politicians might try to exert influence to have him freed. Kamnan Poh was an influential figure in the eastern region and his son is the culture minister.

"There is no pressure. We are doing our job in line with the law," he said.

Somchai was taken to the Criminal Court after questioning and handed over to the Corrections Department. Mr Winai was charged with possession of ammunition after admitting the bullets belonged to him, police said. He had taken Somchai to the hospital as the fugitive had health problems including diabetes and high blood pressure.

Somchai was sent to Bangkok Remand Prison, where he received a 30-minute health check-up.

Wasant Singkhaselit, commander of Bang Kwang central prison, was there to observe proceedings. Somchai might be sent to the Bang Kwang facility. Bangkok Remand Prison is used to detain inmates serving no more than 15 years.

Culture Minister Sonthaya Khunploem, Somchai's son, arrived at the prison but did not get out of the car.

Somchai's relatives informed the prison officials about his health conditions.

Mr Sonthaya said after the arrest that he could not do anything about his father's predicament and would allow the law to take its course.

He pledged not to use his position to interfere in the work of authorities and had not talked about the matter with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra or Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who supervises the police force.

He dismissed speculation the arrest was the result of conniving by the government's opponents and said it would not affect his cabinet position.

Mr Chalerm denied the arrest was politically motivated and said the issue would not endanger Mr Sonthaya's post.

"They are different matters. I don't want it to be politicised," he said.

Meanwhile, Samitivej Hospital said that neither Somchai Khunploem or Kim sae Tang were registered as patients at the hospital. It also said it was unlikely the former mayor would register under a false alias, as registration requires showing identification.

The arrest also sparked a debate about the fate of two other fugitives - Vatana Asvahame and Thaksin Shinawatra.

Vatana was spotted in China last year at Hame Assavaram, a Buddhist temple located in Luoyang in the central Chinese province of Henan. The former deputy interior minister and ex-chief adviser to the Puea Pandin Party was sentenced in 2008 to 10 years in jail.

He was charged with bribing officials to carry out a land grab in the Klong Dan wastewater treatment project in Samut Prakan. He fled four years ago before the verdict was read out.

Thaksin fled a jail sentence in 2008 to take shelter in Dubai.


EARLIER REPORT:

Fugitive Somchai Khunploem, better known as Kamnan Poh, was arrested on the expressway in Bangkok on Wednesday, according to the chief of the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB).

CIB commissioner Pol Lt Gen Pongpat Chayaphan said Somchai was arrested at the Lat Krabang tollgate while travelling in a black Lexus RX270 SUV. Police found six bullets in the vehicle, but no firearms, he added.

Somchai's vehicle was on the outbound lane of the motorway during the arrest. He was travelling with a woman and a man, believed to be his driver.

Somchai Khunploem, left, is arrested by a team of police led by Central Investigation Bureau chief Pol Lt Gen Pongpat Chayaphan, right. (Photo by Wassayos Ngamkham)

Somchai was leaving Bangkok after a visit to Samitivej Hospital. Police found a medical bill under the name of Kim Sae Tung.

He was taken to the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) office in Chokchai 4 for interrogation, Pol Lt Gen Pongpat said.

The Supreme Court on March 12 last year sentenced Somchai in absentia to 25 years in prison for hiring a gunman to murder Prayoon Sitthichoke, alias Kamnan Yoon, the head of tambon Samet in Muang district of Chon Buri province, at a wedding in March 2003.

On June 21, 2004, the Criminal Court sentenced him and Passakorn Homhual, a former member of the Saen Suk municipality council in Chon Buri, for the same offence. The Appeals Court on Oct 12, 2006 upheld the judgement.

Somchai was earlier found guilty by the Chon Buri Court of graft over the purchase of a 140-rai block of land valued at 93 million baht in Bang Lamung district, Chon Buri, by Pattaya City between 1992 and 1993 for use as a rubbish landfill, and sentenced to five years and four months in jail.

He will be handed over to the Criminal Court on the murder charge after being questioned by police.

Somchai fled in 2006 shortly after the Appeals Court's verdict on the murder charge.

He was earlier reported to have fled to Cambodia but witnesses in Chon Buri, his home province, made several reports of sightings of the fugitive to police in recent months.

Pol Col Athip Thaennil, chief of the Special Operations Unit under the CSD, said police in Bangkok decided to launch an operation after Chon Buri police showed no signs that they were ready to arrest Somchai.

Police in Bangkok then mapped out a plan to catch Somchai two months ago, by following him closely to find out when he travelled without bodyguards.

An opportunity to arrest him came on Wednesday, when Somchai visited hospital and was returning to Chon Buri, Pol Col Athip said.

Police shadowed Somchai's vehicle and also set up another operation team on Sukhumvit road in case he decided not to travel home on the expressway, he added.

Somchai's son, Sonthaya Khunploem, is the culture minister.

Video by Pattanapong Hirunard


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