A Laotian man described as a major drug lord in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a Bangkok court to charges that could carry the death penalty, including smuggling and possession.
Xaysana Keopimpha, 41, had been dubbed an “ASEAN Drug Lord” and Thai authorities said he headed a network that supplied caffeine-laced methamphetamine tablets known as “yaba,” which were produced in Myanmar, throughout the Mekong River region.
Xaysana’s Thai lawyer, Vorakorn Pongthanakul on Tuesday promised a strong defense of his client that would include challenging an earlier confession. Vorakorn said his client confessed to a police investigator because while Thai and Lao are similar languages, Xaysana does not understand it or the country’s laws.
The lawyer said his client was worried because he had never been convicted of any crime. As for possible bail, family members in Laos are going to decide whether to apply.
“Now Xaysana is indicted and is becoming a defendant … he and I, as his lawyer, agreed that he would plead innocent and we will fight all the charges,” Vorakorn said following the arraignment in Bangkok North Criminal Court. “I felt somewhat heavyhearted because the charges carry the death penalty.”
The last execution in Thailand for any crime was in 2009.
Xaysana was arrested Jan. 19 at Bangkok’s Suvahnbhumi Airport following a five-year investigation and a tip from Laos officials, according to Lt. Gen. Sommai Kongvisaisuk, who heads the Thai police’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau.
A Malaysian suspect who was arrested by police in Malaysia in February, Kamarudin Bin Awang, was a trade partner of Xaysana, Thailand’s counter-narcotics chief said back then, Sommai said at the time.
Xaysana led a flamboyant lifestyle prior to his arrest, hanging out with Thai celebrities and a soap opera star, according to reports. Lao authorities seized his assets including nine luxury vehicles, five houses and a 475-acre rubber plantation.
Following his January arrest, Sommaly Thammavong, the daughter-in-law of former Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong distanced herself from rumored ties, saying that a photo showing her and Thammavong’s son with Xaysana was taken “by accident.”
The photo that circulated widely on Facebook shows only a casual social connection among the three, Sommaly Thammavong said at the time.
“We have not done any business with him, and we didn’t know what he was involved in,” she said.
The Golden Triangle which straddles Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, was notorious for opium and heroin, but recently methamphetamine overtook production in the region, mostly in Myanmar and to a lesser degree in Laos. Police officials allege that Xaysana himself distributed the drug in Thailand and had a network of dealers peddling yaba in other countries.
Thai police in 2016 captured four members of Xaysana’s alleged drug network, seizing more than 5 million yaba pills, officials told reporters on Jan. 20, the day after they captured the alleged kingpin. Police arrested Xaysana and three associates after they arrived in Bangkok following a visit to the southern Thai resort town of Phuket.
During that press conference, Sommai thanked Lao law-enforcement authorities for providing information that helped lead to the arrest.
“Lao authorities said to us that if we couldn’t arrest him here, they wouldn’t be able to do anything in Laos,” Sommai said.
“Xaysana has enormous assets in Laos,” he said, adding, “I don’t know what’s going on over there.”