BANGKOK - An alleged Laos drug lord linked to some of Thailand's rich and famous denied being a major player in the regional narcotics trade when he appeared in a Bangkok court Tuesday.
Xaysana Keopimpha, 42, was nabbed by Thai police on his way through Bangkok's main airport in January, shining a rare spotlight on communist Laos' shadowy role in the Southeast Asian pill trade.
Narcotics cops alleged he was an "international drug kingpin" and trumpeted his capture in a part of the world where major cartel figures are not big names in criminal folklore and are rarely caught.
The heavy-set Xaysana faces a string of charges including drug smuggling and possession - mainly of methamphetamine, which is known in Thai as "yaba" or crazy medicine for its effect on addicts.
"He denies all the charges," said his lawyer Vorakon Phongtanakul, adding his client had also backtracked on a confession he allegedly signed in police custody.
"He didn't understand Thai laws and officials told him he could change his plea at court," Vorakon said.
Under Thai law the maximum penalty for drug smuggling is death though the country has not executed anyone for years.
Xaysana's arrest drew widespread coverage in Thailand after police said a string of celebrities, including a famous soap opera star, and wealthy individuals were linked to his smuggling network.
Thai police have linked him to a massive seizure of 1.2 million methamphetamine pills made shortly before his arrest. Such pills are hugely popular across Southeast Asia.
The Golden Triangle, a region in the borderlands of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and southern China, is the world's second largest drug-producing region after Latin America.
Large amounts of opium and heroin and hundreds of millions of methamphetamine pills are churned out in remote jungle labs each year and smuggled through the Golden Triangle across Asia and beyond.
Porous borders and rampant corruption have allowed the lucrative drug trade to flourish.
Yet compared to Latin America, cartel leaders face little risk and garner none of the public notoriety.
Drug experts say Thai, Chinese, Myanmar and Malaysian police make frequent arrests and seizures but rarely catch any top figures, and there is little information on Xaysana's seniority in the criminal chain.
Laos is seen as a particularly weak link in efforts to combat the trade.
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Thai police say Xaysana flaunted his wealth, owning a string of luxury sports cars - some of which were seized by police - and travelling frequently to Bangkok where he held parties for members of the city's so-called "hi-so" (high society) elite.
A photo of the suspected drug lord posing with relatives of a former Laos prime minister also raised eyebrows.
The ex-premier's daughter-in-law later told Radio Free Asia the photo was taken "by accident" and Xaysana was only a casual acquaintance.