A British couple who were falsely accused of shoplifting in Bangkokairport and were forced to pay £8,000 in bribes to secure their releaseare to take legal action for compensation.
They were the victims of an extortion racket that has ensnared otherforeign travellers at the airport, which handles most of the 800,000British visitors to Thailand every year.
Stephen Ingram, 49, and Xi Lin, 45, both technology professionals fromCambridge, were detained by security guards as they went to boardQantas flight QF1 to London on the night of Saturday, April 25.
They were accused of taking a Givenchy wallet worth £121 from a KingPower duty-free shop and were handed over to the police. An officialrelease order from the local Thai prosecutor’s office subsequentlyconceded there was no evidence against them.
They were freed five days later after a frightening ordeal in whichthey said they were threatened and held against their will at a cheapmotel on the airport perimeter until they had handed over the money.
The bribes were paid to an intermediary named Sunil “Tony” Rathnayaka,a Sri Lankan national in his fifties who works as a “volunteer”interpreter for Thailand’s tourist police (motto: “To serve and toprotect”).
“Our main motivation is to protect other innocent British tourists frombeing caught up in this nightmare,” said Ingram last week. “We intendto take every legal means to recover our money and obtain justice.”
Last week Rathnayaka admitted in a telephone interview that he hadreceived cash and money transfers amounting to more than £7,000 fromthe Britons. He said the money was for police bail and for a payment toa figure he called “Little Big Man” who could withdraw the case againstthem.
“In Thailand everyone knows it’s like that,” he said. “They can go tojail or they can just pay a fine and go home. It is corruption, youknow?”
Rathnayaka also agreed that the “bail” — about £4,000 — was neverreturned to Ingram and Xi. Thai law says bail should be refunded.
In a detailed statement the couple said they were first detained at anairport office of the tourist police and later taken to cells at apolice station in an isolated modern building on the fringes of theairport.
Rathnayaka confirmed that he met them in the cells on the morning ofSunday, April 26, and arranged the “bail”. The police kept the couple’spassports. Rathnayaka then escorted Ingram and Xi to the ValentineResort, a lurid pink motel a few hundred yards from the runways. Theywere to remain there for four days.
During that time, Rathnayaka warned them not to tell anyone about theirplight, especially the British embassy, lawyers, friends, family or thepress.
However, on April 27 they sneaked out of the hotel and found their wayto the embassy, where they met Kate Dufall, the pro-consul.
According to the couple, she told them the embassy could not interferewith the Thai legal system and put them in contact with PrachayaVijitpokin, a lawyer.
Vijitpokin and a colleague, Kittamert Engchountada, of the LawyersAssociation of Thailand, urged them to stay in the country to fight thecase and have since assembled a dossier for potential prosecutions.
However, Ingram said the couple were so terrified by this stage thatthey decided to meet the demands for money, which they raised by banktransfers from Britain direct to Rathnayaka’s account. The Sunday Timeshas copies of the transactions.
Ingram and Xi were put on a British Airways flight to London early onFriday, May 1, having received their passports with official documentsfrom prosecutors and police stating that no charges were to be broughtagainst them.
They have said they are willing to return to Thailand and testify totry to stop the extortion if the government will guarantee theirsafety.
That could become a priority for Thailand, which has suffered a seriesof blows to its tourist industry through economic and politicalupheaval.
Inquiries last week established that Rathnayaka and his accompliceshave continued preying on tourists who end up in police custody afterbeing accused of theft from the airport duty-free shop. “I am justhelping people,” he explained. “I don’t get paid to do this. All theembassies know me.”
Officials at the Danish embassy confirmed that a Danish woman fell intoRathnayaka’s hands about two weeks ago and was allowed to leaveThailand only after handing over more than £4,500.
When a Sunday Times journalist posing as a businessman in troublecontacted Rathnayaka last week, the first thing he said was: “If it’s acase, for example, of shoplifting at the airport duty-free then I canhelp. Bail is 100,000 baht (£1,800).” He later declined an interview,saying the Sri Lanka embassy — which employs him as an interpreter —had told him not to speak.
The Foreign Office said consular officials had offered to raise thecase with the Thai authorities at the time but had been asked by thecouple not to intervene.
A spokesman for King Power duty-free said the company had strict rulesfor evidence to be submitted to the police in shoplifting cases, butadded: “We cannot control what happens after that.”