BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's prime minister and public appeared
horrified after watching provincial police chief "Joe Ferrari"
allegedly torture and kill a drug suspect by wrapping his head with
layers of plastic bags until he suffocated.

"I put the bag on his head only because I did not want him to see my
face," Police Col. Thitisan Utthanaphon, 39, told this shocked nation
which saw the suffocation and death in a nine-minute video on
nationwide TV news and online.

"But he tried to rip the bag off, so I had to tie him down and put
handcuffs on him, or else he would try to rip the bag.

"My intention was to get information, so we could find the drugs that
are hurting the people in Nakhon Sawan," Col. Thitisan said on August
26 in the police-supervised broadcast from in his town 150 miles (250
km) north of Bangkok.

"I admit what I have done is wrong, and I will accept whatever the
court rules. They can sentence me to life imprisonment. I had no
intention to kill him."

The unfolding case is gripping the public, because it provides a rare,
graphic, visual glimpse into decades of secretive alleged torture and
extrajudicial executions during police and army interrogations.

The British Broadcasting Corporation described the video as a "viral
torture clip."

"After seeing the clip, we believe they [the officers involved]
committed an offence. The clip is real," Thailand's National Police
Chief, General Suwat Jangyodsuk, said.

"A prosecution fully independent of the Thai police is needed if there
is any hope of justice in the torture and killing of Chiraphong
Thanapat,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at New York-based Human
Rights Watch (HRW).

“Successive Thai governments have a long history of failing to ensure
accountability for even the most ghastly police abuses against people
in custody," Mr. Adams stated in a HRW report titled:

"Thailand: Drug Suspect Tortured to Death. Prosecute Officers
Responsible for Police Station Killing."

Colonel Thitisan's portrayal of his intentions as a bumbling,
altruistic crime-buster, was challenged by official investigators and
others after he was arrested on August 26.

They suspect he allegedly tortured Mr. Chiraphong, 24, while trying to
extort a $60,000 bribe to release him without charges, after rejecting
the victim's offer of $30,000.

Earlier in August, police had arrested Mr. Chiraphong and his
girlfriend in downtown Nakhon Sawan for allegedly possessing more than
10,000 methamphetamine tablets, popularly known in Thailand as "ya ba"
(crazy medicine), plus a kilo of the drug.

The police station's internal CCTV shows a cluster of uniformed
officers holding down Mr. Chiraphong while plastic bags are wrapped
around his head.

The victim thrashes and eventually collapses, surrounded by desks,
chairs, and a police uniform dangling on a hangar in the office.

When the victim sprawls on the floor, startled police splash a bucket
of water on him and vainly perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

A junior officer leaked the video.

The scenes caused widespread revulsion, anger, and fear about
Thailand's already controversial police and this Southeast Asian
country's international reputation.

Many Thais predict the provincial police chief, who was quickly fired,
will escape harsh punishment because he is unusually wealthy and

His long-time nickname, Joe Ferrari, reflects his collection more than
a dozen luxury cars, including some built by Ferrari, Porsche,
Lamborghini and Bentley, worth an estimated total of more than $3

He basked in a sprawling Bangkok mansion, reportedly valued at nearly
$2 million.

"I have never been involved in corruption," Colonel Thitisan said
during the news conference which was attended by six other officers
who were arrested at the police station.

The six men include the police station's major, captain, lieutenant,
two senior sergeant majors, and a lieutenant colonel.

They also allegedly appear in the video, dutifully assisting their
boss during the torture.

The heavily guarded six men were presented by  the National Police
Chief, General Jangyodsuk, who also arranged a live mobile phone link
with Colonel Thitisan to air his statements from detention.

The seven officers were expected to face charges of using torture to
kill a person, coercion, and other illegalities.

Police initially insisted the victim died from a methamphetamine
overdose but an autopsy confirmed suffocation.

Other wretched, unrelated murder cases are currently unfolding, but
not making front page news like Joe Ferrari's.

The Royal Thai Police appointed the Criminal Investigation Bureau as
chief investigators.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission is meanwhile peering into his assets.

"Stop Lying Joe" trended on Thai Twitter.

"It is hardly a secret that, at times, state officials have resorted
to torture and other illegal interrogation processes," a Bangkok Post
editorial said August 28.

"Historically, Thailand's men in uniform are notorious for their use
of draconian measures while dispensing a brand of justice that has
been known to embrace the beating, suffocation, and even
water-boarding of 'bad guys' or 'enemies' of the state," the Post

"Are Thais living in an alternative Nazi-inspired universe?" the
online Thai Enquirer's Cod Satrusayang asked in his column.

"Despite murdering an alleged drug dealer in cold blood, with a
plastic bag, while his men held the guy down, he is a good person.

"Never mind that this is the kind of scene you’d expect to see in a
Nazi movie, Joe is a good person," said Mr. Cod.

"The torture and killing of a drug suspect in Nakhon Sawan province is
not an isolated incident by rogue police officers," HRW said.

"Beginning in 2003, under then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai
police carried out a notorious 'war on drugs' that resulted in the
deaths of at least 2,819 suspected drug traffickers, many of which
appeared to be extrajudicial killings.

"Virtually none of the police commanders and officers responsible for
the 'war on drugs' killings, and related abuses, have been brought to
justice," HRW said.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction
books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos,
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes,
Smugglers & Freaks" are available at