Australia: From sinister to minister: politician's drug trafficking jail time revealed - PressFrom - Australia
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AustraliaFrom sinister to minister: politician's drug trafficking jail time revealed

23:41  08 september  2019
23:41  08 september  2019 Source:   smh.com.au

Canberra cafe owner Brendan Baker jailed for 13 years over drug offences

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From sinister to minister: politician's drug trafficking jail time revealed© Bangkok Post Thammanat Prompao spent four years in a Sydney jail in the 1990s after pleading guilty to conspiring to import more than three kilograms of heroin.

When the newly appointed minister fronted the cameras in July, he explained away questions about a criminal past in Sydney, saying he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was 1993 and he had just landed in the Harbour City. He had been at his friend’s Bondi hotel room for only a few minutes when police swarmed, and, he says, he knew nothing about the drugs they were dealing.

It was only a few months later, in his version, that he was set free.

However, the Herald and The Age can reveal that a newly appointed senior member of Thailand’s ruling party spent four years in a Sydney jail in the 1990s for his role in trafficking 3.2 kilograms of heroin into Australia. He was deported on his release from Parklea prison.

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Thammanat Prompao, a key ally of top generals and an enforcer in the coalition cabinet, was a young soldier known as Manat Bophlom when he pleaded guilty in the NSW District Court to conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of heroin with a street value of up to $4.1 million.

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When reports of a previous conviction surfaced in the Thai media in July, days before he was sworn in as a minister, Thammanat downplayed its significance, saying he was found guilty of a “minor offence”.

He acknowledged that he had been arrested in April 1993 but said he spent a limited time in custody before resuming a normal life in Sydney selling sanitary products.

“I didn’t import, produce or deal heroin,” he told the media. “While on vacation in Sydney, I was properly cleared by immigration. But I was unfortunate to have been in the same place at the same time as some drug offenders.” In a statement at the weekend, Thammanat stood by his version of events.

However, court documents show Second Lieutenant Manat, as he was then known, was a central figure in the drug trafficking operation.

The court file reveals Manat met key Thai underworld figures and his Australian co-accused in Bangkok before the deal, was involved in arranging the visa and buying Qantas tickets for the female drug courier, was recorded saying he was present when she packed the drugs into her luggage, and later helped transport that bag across town to the buyers in Bondi.

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From sinister to minister: politician's drug trafficking jail time revealed© Palang Pracharat Party Thai cabinet minister Thammanat Prompao at the July press conference concerning his Sydney drug conviction. While in Parramatta jail awaiting sentencing, Manat told police he had worked as a bodyguard for the then crown prince of Thailand, had been an army spy under the identity “Yuthaphum Bophlom”, and ran a side business while serving as an assistant to a top general. In exchange for leniency in his sentence, he also gave up details about Thai drug operations, saying former soldiers named Wera, Manop and Pisarn were intimately involved, according to the court file.

In late 1992, he and his half-brother and business partner, Sorasat Tiemtad, discussed sending people to Australia as Sorasat wanted to set up a “young coconut” importing business, he told investigators. In January 1993, Sorasat asked Manat to help arrange a visa for a woman known as Pa to visit Australia. The two went to the Kings Coffee Shop outside the old Australian Embassy in Bangkok, where they met Pa and a man named Pisarn and lodged the application. The next day, Sorasat handed Pa an airline ticket – paid for by Manat.

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In February, two of Manat’s associates joined Sorasat at a Bangkok restaurant where a criminal figure known as Wera introduced two “farang” or foreigners, one “tall and good-looking” who “looked like Rambo” and the other “fat with a beard” missing some teeth, the court file shows. The two Australians, Sam Calabrese and Mario Constantino, met Sorasat several times in the following weeks.

“Although [Sorasat] Tiemtad did not tell me directly that it was heroin, I suspected that what he was trying to send to Australia was illegal,” Manat told police. Later he added: “I knew that Wera was a smuggler who also dealt in drugs.”

Sorasat flew to Sydney first, and on April 8 checked into room 1011 of the Palage Hotel Bondi. The courier Pa would fly out of Bangkok two days later and Manat was later recorded telling Sorasat he was with her the night before her flight.

“That night we didn’t let her out of sight, she stayed in our sight all the time from 7pm til 5.30am,” Manat said, according to a translation of surveillance material collected by the Australian Federal Police’s Operation Drover.

“She said Manat took her to the house and she had a shower. Something was put into her bag,” Sorasat said. Manat replied: “I was there when she did it.”

When Sorasat and Constantino went to collect Pa from Sydney Airport, she was nowhere to be found. Her failure to appear set off a flurry of calls between Sorasat and Thailand. Manat was angry, and later told Sorasat, “You couldn’t do the job as I wanted.”

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Sorasat sought to assuage Calabrese’s concerns, joining him on a visit to Bondi Beach and catching up in Coogee in between looking for Pa.

From sinister to minister: politician's drug trafficking jail time revealed© Andrew Meares The heroin was left in room 713 of the Parkroyal Hotel in Darling Harbour, shown here from the early 1990s. She turned up at the Gazebo Hotel in Kings Cross, having left the heroin in room 713 of the Parkroyal Hotel in Darling Harbour. This gave the AFP time to substitute the drugs and plant listening devices.

Sorasat tracked down Pa at the Gazebo. She gave him the key to room 713 and a box of matches with the Parkroyal’s address.

Another key player, Manop, who was preparing to fly to Sydney with Manat, baulked after Pa didn’t show up as planned. Manat went ahead alone.

When he walked through the arrival hall at 8.18pm on April 14, AFP officers were watching - and listening. The police statement of facts in the file records that Manat and Sorasat left the Palage Hotel, taking a case via taxi to the Parkroyal.

Sorasat checked into room 609, and handed Manat the key to room 713 to fetch the package hidden under the bed. Sorasat placed the brown package into a black suitcase, and they took it back to the Palage in Bondi, stopping at a hot dog stand in Campbell Parade before making a series of phone calls and dining at the Tuk Tuk restaurant.

“It’s not good to keep the stuff with us for long,” Manat told Sorasat back in the room, waiting for the Australians.

Constantino arrived first, making a gesture of prayer and laughing when he saw the bag. After Calabrese arrived, the four spoke about flights and women.

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Shortly after midnight, just hours after Manat had arrived in Australia to finalise the deal, officers from Operation Drover, who had been trailing the group for nearly a week, stormed the room.

The four were charged with conspiracy to import heroin and refused bail.

Sorasat pleaded guilty first and by November Manat had been committed to stand trial when a judge indicated he faced nine years’ jail. After that, he began co-operating with police and pleaded guilty. In one police interview he promised, “I’m going to tell the whole story about Wera,” including that Wera has people killed. Police asserted that Manat told them couriers smuggled drugs into Australia by swallowing condoms of heroin.

Manat and Sorasat were sentenced to six years’ jail with a non-parole period of four years. Manat’s deep connections in Thailand were underlined when he produced character references from a judge and a police lieutenant-colonel who each said he “always has good behaviours [sic], honesty and is reliable”.

After Constantino received a 2½-year minimum sentence, Manat and Sorasat appealed the severity of their sentence. The Court of Criminal Appeal rejected it unanimously, noting the evidence “casts considerable light upon the role of the applicants in relation to the importation [of heroin], and upon their relationship with what might be described as the head supplier in Thailand.

“The evidence of the applicants was that the negotiations in Thailand, and in particular the discussion about price and quantity of heroin, were all conducted by Calabrese.” Calabrese's charges were later dismissed.

Manat and Sorasat were released on April 14, 1997, and immediately deported.

From sinister to minister: politician's drug trafficking jail time revealed© Facebook Thammanat Prompao and his second wife, 24-year-old beauty pageant winner Thanaporn, and on the campaign trail. Back home, Manat slipped into army fatigues under the name Patchara Prompao, and the next year was promoted. He later became Thammanat Prompao, and has been quoted saying changing his name helps clear away bad karma. Controversy and further allegations followed as he rose through the ranks in business and politics.

Couple are arrested on their wedding day on suspicion of drug trafficking just hours before they planned to jet off on a luxurious honeymoon

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Another serious allegation was levelled against him in 1998, when he was charged over the rape and murder of a gay academic at an office he owned. After another three years in custody, Thammanat was acquitted of those charges. One of his subordinates was convicted. Reports from 1998 refer to the then supreme commander of the Thai armed forces saying the army had been lax in allowing him to return to the fold given the serious nature of the charges.

After his acquittal, he was aligned with powerful military figures and has been described in the Thai media as a mafia-style figure – a reputation he has tried to downplay.

"The word 'mafia' in my view is not as dark as many think," Thammanat told the Bangkok Post. "Mafia means someone who has connections with many people and who keeps his word."

His assets and family have grown, too; a parliamentary declaration of assets in August named two wives and seven children, wealth of about $42 million, a fleet of cars including a Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Tesla and Mercedes along with 12 Hermes and 13 Chanel handbags, luxury watches and Buddhist amulets. The 54-year-old’s second wife, 24-year-old beauty pageant winner Thanaporn, accompanied him on the campaign trail.

His appointment as deputy agriculture minister belies his importance to the pro-army party ruling Thailand in a tenuous post-election coalition. It is a powerful and politically sensitive department, and as an ally of current and former army chiefs Thammanat wields influence; in recent weeks he has been deployed to keep minor parties in line.

In a 20-minute press conference and a sit-down interview in July, the minister defended himself against accusations spanning more than 25 years. He put the arrest in Sydney down to bad luck.

Asked last week to respond to details in the court file, Thammanat's office issued a statement calling the case an "unfortunate event" that "went through the proper course of the Australian judicial system where all parties were held accountable fairly and justly".

"The facts regarding this matter were also given through numerous interviews and was publicised through various media channels in Thailand as well as abroad in the past. Our statement still remains unchanged as we have always been truthful to the public."

His co-offender Sorasat was interviewed in July and backed Thammanat’s version of events.

In July, Thammanat told reporters: “I lived a normal life in Australia, in Sydney, for a full four years. You can ask the court in Sydney whether what I’m saying is true or not.”

Couple are arrested on their wedding day on suspicion of drug trafficking just hours before they planned to jet off on a luxurious honeymoon.
The couple, from Townsville, Queensland, were about to head overseas on their honeymoon when they were arrested and accused of regularly supplying drugs.

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