November 9, 2015 / 10:21 AM / 2 years ago

Thai fortune teller second suspect to die in custody in royal insult probe

Well-wishers hold up pictures of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, May 10, 2015. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai fortune teller arrested as part of a high-profile royal insult investigation has died, the government said on Monday, the second suspect in as many weeks to die in police custody.

Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, a well-known soothsayer and former aide to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, died of natural causes on Saturday, the Department of Corrections said in a statement.

Suriyan, 53, was found unconscious in his cell and taken to a hospital where attempts to revive him proved unsuccessful, the department said.

Suriyan, who was known in Thai by the nickname “Mor Yong”, was charged with lese majeste, which in Thailand is one of the strictest such laws in the world, along with two other people involved in an alleged conspiracy to exploit the name of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

Thailand’s royal insult laws carry up to 15 years in prison for each count for anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent.

Until his arrest, Suriyan had been seen frequently with top officials. He was also the chief organizer of a cycling event in August which the prince took part in, in honor of his mother, Queen Sirikit.

Another suspect, Prakrom Warunprapa, a prominent policeman, died in custody last month. Police say he hanged himself using his shirt but refused to do an autopsy.

The investigation is part of a crackdown on perceived royal insults launched by the junta, which took power in a coup last year.

Ultra royalist Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has vowed to stamp out critics of the monarchy and has repeatedly called for stronger prosecution of lese majeste since taking power but some say the crackdown is aimed at ensuring an orderly succession.

King Bhumibol, 87, is convalescing at a Bangkok hospital after being treated by doctor’s for ‘water on the brain’.

His frail health has added to the political uncertainty surrounding Thailand since the 2014 coup.

“This is a very sensitive time for Thailand and part of the reason that the military is in power is to ensure a smooth royal succession when the time comes,” said a Bangkok-based political analyst who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

Nervousness over the succession has formed the backdrop to a decade of political crisis in the country. The lese majeste law prevents any open discussion of the succession.

Media in Thailand routinely exercise self-censorship in coverage of the royal family to avoid falling foul of the law.

A military court in Bangkok on Monday issued an arrest warrant for Colonel Khachachart Boondee, commander of the army’s 1st Artillery Regiment, over charges of lese majeste and abusing his authority for personal gain over the organization of “a forthcoming event”.

It did not give further details.

Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Nick Macfie

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