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Saudi Arabia to lobby Thai King on Diplomat murder case
Stolen diamonds, fleeing criminals, corrupt police officers, skullduggery and murder -- it could be the key contents of a heist thriller, but to the Saudi royal family it's no fiction.
In an exclusive interview, the Saudi charge d’affaires to Thailand has told the Anadolu Agency that the kingdom has had enough of stalled attempts to get to the bottom of a case that has destroyed relations between the two countries for almost a quarter of a century, and is to seek intervention from the King of Thailand himself.
"[A] letter will ask the King of Thailand for justice," Abdulelah Alsheaiby told the AA.
In 1989, a Thai janitor working in the Saudi palace of a prince made off with jewelry reported to be worth between $2 and $20 million. He was arrested in Thailand soon after, police returning the jewelry to the Saudi authorities. But some of the pieces -- including a huge, nearly flawless "blue diamond" -- turned out to be fake, leading to suspicions that senior police and members of Thailand’s powerful elite had copied the loot and ordered a cover-up.
Soon after, four Saudi diplomats based in Bangkok who were attempting to recover the jewelry were murdered. Mohammad al-Ruwaili, a Saudi businessman and close friend of the murdered diplomats, then disappeared during the police investigation into the killings. His body was never found.
Under tremendous pressure from Saudi Arabia, Thailand has continued to investigate the case -- while also proclaiming its innocence.
The Thai ambassador to Turkey told the AA in Ankara that although the country regretted the murder of the diplomats, "they were most likely the victims of conflict elsewhere."
The ambassador refused to elaborate on what he meant by "elsewhere."
“Thailand was used as the location of the operations," Tharit Charunvat said.
"The government of Thailand has been working closely and sharing all evidence that is has found with the goverment of Saudi Arabia."
Late Saudi Charge d'Affaires Mohammed Khoja was adamant, however, that the murders and kidnapping were connected to the theft. Four years after al-Ruwaili's disappearance, a Thai jeweler he believed to be behind the copying of the jewels was kidnapped, his wife and son dying in a mysterious car crash soon after.
"The forensic commander thinks we're stupid. This was not an accident," Khoja has told the Washington Post.
Thai reporters agree, long speculating that some of the jewels -- especially the blue diamond -- ended up in the possession of people at the top of Thai social ladder.
On March 31 this year, the Thai criminal court dismissed a case against five Thai police officers accused of having kidnapped and murdered Al-Ruwaili and then burning his body. The main defendant, Police Lieutenant General Somkid Boonthanom, was accused of having given the order. All five denied the charges.
The judge considered the evidence "too weak," and did not consider as credible the statement of another Thai police officer.
The police officer was interviewed by the Thai Department of Investigations in the United Arab Emirates, where he resides out of fear of giving his testimony in Thailand.
For Alsheaiby, the Saudi charge d’affaires, however, the fact that the judge on the al-Ruwaili case was changed just two weeks before the judgment is a sign of "clear interference."
"The former judge had worked for three years on the case. He had heard all the witnesses and read all the documents. How could the new judge even pronounce a judgment without knowing anything?" he asked.
"There is a deep problem with the Thai justice system."
Thailand does have judicial problems. Corruption is not unheard of among judges, as several have been demoted for asking for millions of baht in bribes. Accusations of collusion between police and judges are also common -- the Thai justice system has no investigative judge and the notoriously corrupt police have extensive powers in the pre-trial phase.
In a recent case, an heir to the ultra-wealthy Red Bull energy drink family who mowed down a police officer in his Ferrari is yet to appear in court, offering excuses such as he was "on a business trip to Singapore." Another time, he could not appear as he was suffering "bad flu."
On announcement of the al-Ruwaili charges being dismissed, The Bangkok Post quoted the dead businessman's brother in law, Matrouk al-Ruwaili, as saying: "The family has come to the conclusion that he was stopped by the police and taken by the police -- which division we don't know -- for certain interrogations, perhaps relating to the assassination of the Saudi diplomats."
The prosecutor-general and the al-Ruwaili family are considering an appeal.
Alsheaiby said that Saudi authorities are now studying the possibility of filing a case on al-Ruwaili's murder to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, as Boonthanom -- the main suspect in the murder of Saudi businessman Al-Ruwaili -- was a Thai state official at the time of the disappearance.
They are also musing a further downgrade of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Bangkok, although the Saudi charge d'affaires confessed that the country could do little more to impress the seriousness of the issue on Thailand "other than closing the embassy and packing up" altogether.
After the diplomats’ killing in 1990, a furious Riyadh downgraded the level of diplomatic relations between the two countries by replacing the ambassador with the chargé d’affaires. For a number of years, it also stopped allowing Thai migrant workers to work in the kingdom. They are now allowed back in -- albeit at a limited level.
In return, Saudi Arabia is not allowing its citizens to visit Thailand.
"You can only imagine how much Thailand is losing because of this one person [Somkid Boonthanom]," said Alsheaiby.
"Hundreds of thousands of Saudi tourists would like to come here.... Our crown prince has been visiting and signing contracts all over the region, but not here," he added.
Thai ambassador Charunvat highlighted that although there are pending issues between the two governments, the people "do not have hard feelings for each other."
"Every year thousands of Thai Muslims go to Mecca and Medina; as many as the Saudis can entertain," he said. "They have a quota, we want more quota, that means the people on both sides don't have any hard feelings."
In June 2006, during the 16th anniversary of the coronation of the Thai King, the Royal Saudi family was one of the world's few monarchies not to send someone to the lavish celebration.
It is now hoping that a direct appeal for justice to its Thai equivalent will close doors on a 25-year diplomatic and economic headache.
“We trust H.M. the King that he will retain justice in the right way," Alsheaiby told the AA.
*This story replaces a story published May 1, 2014 to clarify comments made by Thai Ambassador Tharit Charunvat