Fugitive Vatana gets 10 years in prison for graft

Bangkok Post 19 August 2008


Seen in Cambodia, extradition bid likely

The Supreme Court sentenced former deputy interior minister Vatana Asavahame to 10 years in jail yesterday, convicting him of corruption in the long-running Klong Dan wastewater treatment plant scandal. 

Vatana, 71, was again not present at the court to hear the verdict. A new arrest warrant was issued with a validity of 15 years under the statute of limitations. 

The court was told Vatana is hiding in Cambodia, where he has business and political connections. 

Police were authorised to find him and try to have him extradited.

Eight of the nine judges sitting on the bench of the court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions found the former Samut Prakan MP guilty as charged. The court read out its 88-page verdict in the fugitive's absence. 

On July 9, the court seized Vatana's 2.2-million-baht bail and issued a warrant for his arrest after he failed to appear to hear the verdict, which was then rescheduled for yesterday.

Police said the then chief adviser of Puea Pandin was thought to be in Cambodia, where he has two resort casinos in the border town of Poi Pet, opposite Sa Kaeo's Aranyaprathet district. 

Before the verdict was delivered yesterday, deputy national police chief Jongrak Juthanont said he had a report from Pol Maj-Gen Itthipol Piriyapinyo, the Sa Kaeo police chief, that Vatana had been seen in Poi Pet and Phnom Penh. Members of his family had also been seen crossing into Cambodia. 

Pol Gen Jongrak said at the weekend that an application for Vatana's extradition would be made if the court found him guilty. 

Surasak Treeratkul, deputy director-general for special litigation at the Office of the Attorney-General, said the Royal Thai Police Office must formally request that the attorney-general seek Vatana's extradition. 

Poolpol Asavahame, Vatana's son and secretary-general of the Puea Pandin party, said his father had been informed of the court's decision. 

In 2002, the Pollution Control Department lodged a complaint with the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC). 

They accused him of abusing his power as deputy interior minister 16 years ago, conspiring with land and pollution control officials in the illegal issuance of title deeds for 1,900 rai of public land that was then sold at an inflated price to the Pollution Control Department for construction of the 23-billion-baht Klong Dan wastewater-treatment facility in Samut Prakan's Bang Bo district. 

The NCCC and the OAG investigated the case against Vatana. It took 15 years to complete. 

Prosecutors filed separate cases against five other officials involved. Legal experts doubt the five will be brought to justice as the 15-year statute of limitations in the case expires in October. 

Construction of the plant, which is about 90%-complete, was suspended years ago due to strong opposition from local people who said it would damage the local coastal ecology. 

Villagers and anti-corruption activists also came up with evidence of the corruption that led to the court cases. 

The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry is considering whether the project should be completed. 

Local communities and environmentalists demand it be restructured as a coastal research station. 

Vatana is the second politician to be convicted by the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions. 

Rakkiat Sukthana was convicted of accepting bribes while public health minister from 1997 to 1998 and was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2004. 

He jumped bail but was later caught.