Fugitive Thai millionaire protests his innocence

BANGKOK - A fugitive Thai millionaire wanted on charges including royal defamation broke cover to protest his innocence Sunday in a graft probe that has seen relatives of the crown prince's wife arrested.

Nopporn Suppipat denied police accusations that he helped orchestrate the kidnapping of a man who owed him money, and said he fled to Cambodia on November 30 after discovering he would be charged under Thailand's draconian lese majeste law.

"I knew '112' would mean I wouldn't get bail... I couldn't take that risk," the 43-year-old told AFP in a phone interview from an undisclosed location early Sunday.

Under section 112 of Thailand's criminal code, anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.

The comments from the energy tycoon - ranked by Forbes magazine in 2013 as Thailand's 31st richest man - are the latest twist in a corruption scandal that has rocked the kingdom's elite and led to the arrest of three relatives of Princess Srirasmi, the wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The police corruption case exploded at the end of November when three senior officers - including the head of the elite Central Investigation Bureau - were arrested on a string of bribery charges in the junta-ruled kingdom.

More than 20 people have been arrested so far in the probe as the junta-backed police chief promotes an anti-corruption crusade.

Palace intrigue

But the investigation has also seen the palace fall under a rare spotlight at a time of deep uncertainty.

On Friday, the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej cancelled plans to hold a public audience marking his 87th birthday, adding to anxiety about the kingdom's future after the army seized power from a civilian government in May.

Vajiralongkorn, the king's son and heir, meanwhile has demanded the ruling regime ban anyone from using the surname 'Akkharapongpricha'.

Three people with the surname - an honorific given to relatives of Princess Srirasmi following her marriage to the crown prince - were arrested nearly two weeks ago on graft charges.

Police accuse Nopporn of hiring the Akkharapongprichas to kidnap his former business partner to force him to reduce a loan he owed. But Nopporn said he had never met or hired Princess Srirasmi's relatives.

"On my mother's and father's and everyone I love's life, I had never met or heard of them until this happened," he said.

Instead he says he was engaged in a lengthy court dispute over money with the businessman, eventually enlisting the help of a senior army officer to help negotiate a final settlement. Nopporn said the officer hired the Akkharapongprichas without his knowledge.

The energy tycoon added that he believed he was being targeted because he was perceived as being close to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, although he insisted he was not a supporter of the ousted leader, who lives abroad in self-exile.

May's coup deposed Thaksin's sister Yingluck as prime minister. It was the latest chapter in a long-running conflict that 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.

"People said the police believed I was close to Thaksin, and with that I knew I had to run," Nopporn said.

He said he had no intention of returning to Thailand any time soon because he believed he would be unable to get a fair hearing in the junta-led nation.

Junta spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak said he could not comment on Nopporn's remarks as the case was still under investigation.