BANGKOK, Thailand: Five more civilians have been arrested as part of a major corruption probe into a network of senior Thai police officers, authorities said on Wednesday, bringing the total number of those caught up in the scandal to 17.
The investigation - a rare move against the kingdom's top brass - has already led to the public downfall of three senior officers who have been charged under Thailand's strict royal defamation law.
Pongpat Chayapun, the head of Thailand's elite Central Investigation Bureau, his deputy Kowit Vongrongrot and marine police chief Boonsueb Praithuen have all been accused by Thai authorities of running a corrupt patronage network that allegedly netted them a fortune.
As well as facing a slew of bribery and corruption allegations, the trio have been charged under the kingdom's lese majeste law in which anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
Investigators accuse the three senior officers, who have been dismissed from their posts, of making "false claims" about the monarchy in order to demand bribes. National police spokesman Lieutenant General Prawut Thavornsiri said a further five civilians were arrested on Wednesday as part of the widening probe.
"Based on our investigations we have found that there are more people making false claims about the monarchy to demand bribes, illegally detain people and extort them," he said.
None of the five people have yet been charged under Thailand's royal defamation law. "They are under interrogation and if we find clear evidence we will add lese majeste charges later," Prawut said.
A total of seven police officers and 10 civilians have now been arrested in the probe, which analysts say is an attempt by the military junta to strengthen their hold over police. Twelve have been charged.
Generals took control of Thailand in a May coup after months of street protests. The kingdom's police have since come under intense scrutiny with the military purging dozens of top officers seen as cosy with the elected former government of Yingluck Shinawatra, whose billionaire brother and former premier Thaksin is an ex-policeman. The police are unpopular with Thais who bemoan routine bribe-taking.
May's coup was the latest chapter in Thailand's long-running political conflict, which broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite, backed by parts of the military and judiciary, against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin.
Both Thai and international media must heavily self-censor when covering the country's lese majeste rules. Even repeating details of the charges could mean breaking the law under section 112 of Thailand's criminal code.