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Thai court says key official can stay despite drug case

In this July 16, 2019 file photo, Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao arrive for a group photo with his cabinet members at the government house in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) -- A Thai court ruled on Wednesday that an influential politician and deputy agriculture minister could keep his job and continue as a lawmaker, even though he was convicted and jailed in Australia in 1994 for smuggling heroin.

    Under Thai law, anyone found guilty of narcotics offences is barred from holding public office. But the Constitutional Court decided that the rule did not apply in the case of Thammanat Prompao because his conviction in a foreign country had no standing in Thailand.

    The case was brought by the opposition Move Forward Party after Thammanat had repeatedly refused to resign when details of the case came to light two years ago.

    Court documents discovered by The Sydney Morning Herald showed that Thammanat, then using the name Manat Bophlom, pleaded guilty in 1993 to involvement in trafficking 3.2 kilograms (7 pounds) of heroin into Australia.

    The newspaper said evidence showed Thammanat played a major part in the operation. However, he was given a relatively lenient six-year sentence after cooperating with the police investigation, it said. He was reportedly released after serving four years and then deported.

    Thammanat disputed the accuracy of the reporting. He said he had never been jailed and there had been a misunderstanding. He had merely been in the wrong place at the wrong time, he said. He also said the recent moves to strip him of his status and position were part of a political conspiracy against him.

    The deputy minister -- who is sometimes given the title "captain" due to previous service in the army -- is a political heavyweight. He was credited with playing a key role in delivering votes in the north of the country in the last general election to help Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a 2014 coup, stay on. He has also recently been tipped to lead the ruling Palang Pracharath Party.

    Thammanat has had other brushes with the law.

    After he returned from Australia, he was arrested and served two years in prison in connection with a killing. He was later acquitted. In 2018, he was linked to a massive bitcoin fraud case but was not accused of any crime. In 2019, he was forced to refute claims that his doctorate was bogus.

    Last year, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to defend his close aide who was implicated in an alleged profiteering scheme to hoard face masks. The aide denied any involvement.

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