TIME Thailand

Tourists Are Reporting a Dramatic Surge in Harassment by Thai Police

A tourist policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khao San road in Bangkok
A policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khaosan Road in Bangkok on Jan. 19, 2012 Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters

The Land of Smiles? How about the Land of Shakedowns?

Mastercard’s 2014 Global Destination Cities Index recently ranked Bangkok as the second most visited destination in the world after London. Spend a few days this hedonistic metropolis and you’ll soon understand why, for it offers an almost unbeatable mix of culture, edgy nightlife, cheap shopping, comfortable hotels, warm weather and — who can say no? — Thai cuisine.

But since the May 22 coup d’état that saw the ouster of a democratically elected government and martial law declared across the country, many tourists and expatriates in Bangkok have fallen prey to a criminal practice. The victims have little recourse when reporting incidents to the police, because the perpetrators are police officers.

“If you go to Sukhumvit Road, you can see the police looking for tourists who are smoking or drop a cigarette butt, then they ask them for their passport and make them pay 2,000 baht [just over $60]. I see this happening all the time,” says anticorruption politician Chuwit Kamolvisit.

“[And] when the tourists come out of Soi Cowboy [a notorious red-light area], the police ask them if they’ve had drugs and then make them do a pee test on the side of the road. If they don’t want to do the pee test, they have to pay 20,000 baht [about $610].”

Being a former brothel owner, Chuwit’s word isn’t exactly gospel in Thailand. But his claims are apparently corroborated by dozens if not hundreds of first-person reports in the form of local newspaper articles, complaints to embassies, blogs and social-media postings. Some believe that the coup, by disrupting traditional avenues for corruption, has forced aberrant police officers to look for new targets.

On Dec. 10, British Ambassador Mark Kent tweeted, “Met Tourism Minister this morning. Covered range of issues, including reports of stop and search in Bangkok.”

The Twitter feed of Joe Cummings, the former Lonely Planet author who practically ​put Thailand on the backpacker map, is riddled with stories detailing police harassment and extortion. “Random police searches of foreigners in BKK is getting bad,” reads a typical entry dated Dec. 6. “Many reports of innocent tourists forced to pay bribes.”

Then there’s this scathing letter to the editor by tourist Reese Walker published Nov. 29 in the Bangkok Post: “Stopped, frisked and searched. When we asked what reason was for the search, police simply laughed at us. The police even asked my fiance to perform a urine test on the side of the road … [We] won’t be recommending other people to visit Thailand based on two frightening incidents of what we believe to be racial profiling.”

Walker’s letter gives me a real sense of déjà vu because when I was assignment in Bangkok last month, I too became the victim of a police shakedown.

It was Christmas Eve and I was at the upstairs area of a terrace bar in the Silom Road area having a late-night drink. At around 2 a.m. I called it a night and descended to the ground floor. There I saw half a dozen police officers searching the premises and interrogating the bartender, who was handcuffed on a chair. An officer detained me straight away. “What’s going on?” I asked, identifying myself as a journalist.

He made a menacing fist at me, which convinced me to pipe down.

About 15 minutes later, another police officer produced a bag of white powder, shook it near my face and accused me of buying it. I emphatically denied the claim. Meanwhile, other police officers began helping themselves to drinks from the bar. When the bartender protested, they kicked him in the shins.

Eventually, a police officer took me outside where a Thai woman told me if I paid the equivalent of $15,200, I would be released. I told her I hadn’t done anything and would not pay a cent. I was taken back inside, where officers had now detained another four Westerners present at the bar. They then took all five of us in taxis to a nearby police station without a word of explanation.

Over the next four hours we were individually forced to undergo urine tests for drugs, during which a policeman standing guard in the lavatory taunted me by saying, “You cocaine.” Images from popular books and a TV series on the notorious Bangkwang Central Prison penitentiary, the so-called Bangkok Hilton, flashed through my mind.

Next we were taken to a media room with powerful fluorescent lights. Exhausted and disheveled, having not slept the entire night, and with our urine samples lined in front of us, we were photographed in a setting that made us look guilty as sin.

Some time after dawn we were presented with a typed document — in Thai — and told to sign it. At this, I drew a line and demanded to speak with the Australian embassy. Only then did our tormentors back down, casually informing us we’d all passed our drug tests and would be released — if only we signed on the dotted line. I did so, but I also scribbled, “This is not my signature” on the document before walking back onto the steamy streets of Bangkok at 8 a.m. on Christmas Day, traumatized but elated to be free.

During my detention, I identified myself as a journalist many times and asked for an explanation. None was given to me. After my release, I wrote to the official email address of the Thai police, but it bounced back. I copied half a dozen other government agencies, including the Australian embassy in Bangkok, which is supposed to have a police-liaison unit, but the only reply I got was from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which said the following:

“The Royal Thai Government and the Royal Thai Police have no such policy to detain, harass, abduct, threaten and drug test Western tourists in Thailand. On the contrary, the Royal Thai Government recognizes the huge importance of tourism and safety for all foreign tourists is an on-going priority for the country.”

One would think that would be the case. Tourism receipts and indirect tourism activity account for 15% of Thailand’s GDP — making it the largest sector in the economy. So why would police be allowed to make omelets from Thailand’s golden eggs?

The most popular theory is that low-ranking street cops, some of whom earn as little as $1 an hour, are seeking out new sources of income, because the military-led government has begun cracking down on the street vendors who were the former targets of police shakedowns. Foreigners make convenient prey because they can be intimidated and, compared with the local population, are relatively wealthy.

“This explanation says the takeover has placed the police, traditionally at odds with the military, in some sort of frenzy amidst proposed restructuring that is likely to deeply disrupt the way the police have operated — both formally and informally,” says Thai political analyst Saksith Saiyasombut.

But Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scholar based in Japan who has had his passport revoked for criticizing the military-led government, thinks the practice has, paradoxically, a social-order element to it. Demanding random drug tests from some tourists, or asking for cash for a dropped cigarette butt, the thinking goes, shows other tourists that Thailand’s new rulers want to shed some of the seedier aspects of the country’s image abroad.

“The coup makers came with a mission. And that mission is to rebuild an orderly and clean society,” Pavin says. “They believe that by appearing to be serious about cleaning up society and creating an orderly atmosphere, it will attract more tourists. They even bizarrely announced a new campaign, Tourism and Martial Law, to promote the idea that society under martial law is pleasant.”

He adds: “It will not work, because they don’t understand either the logic of tourists or indeed the economy of tourism.”

Bangkok may have had 16.42 million visitors last year. But that number is down nearly 2 million compared with the previous year, with the drop attributed to the declining ruble and corresponding fall in the number of Russian tourists. Increased fear of flying in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines tragedies has been proffered as another reason, as has general uncertainty about the coup. If action isn’t taken to rein in the Thai police, tourist numbers may fall further still.

Read next: Thai Prisoners May Soon Be Catching the Fish on Your Dinner Plate

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Philippines

Pope Calls Out Philippines on Corruption and ‘Scandalous’ Inequality

Pope Francis Visits Philippines - Day 2
Pope Francis waves to thousands of followers as he arrives at the Manila Cathedral on Jan. 16, 2015, in Manila Lisa Maree Williams—Getty Images

His remarks come on the first day of a highly anticipated four-day visit

Pope Francis has called on the Philippine government to fulfill its pledges to crack down on the country’s rampant corruption.

Addressing assembled dignitaries, including President Benigno Aquino, at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on Friday, the Pontiff called on “everyone, at all levels of society, to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor.”

He added that “it is now, more than ever, necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good” and asked Filipinos “to hear the voice of the poor.” Injustice and oppression, he said, had given rise to “glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities.”

The Pope’s remarks will have resonance for Aquino. When he campaigned for President in 2010, he vowed to fight poverty and tackle corruption and said that for too long the Philippines’ ruling elite had grown rich at the expense of the poor. The campaign message hit home in a country where about 1 in 4 lives in poverty. But while steps in the right direction have been made, official impunity and social inequality persist.

Filipinos, meanwhile, are sure to be pleased by the Pontiff’s comments. The country’s vibrant civil society has fought hard for decades to improve governance and give ordinary people a better shot. Their efforts have been stymied, though, by political infighting, special interests, and sclerotic courts that often operate at the behest of the wealthy and well-connected.

Pope Francis is on the first day of a highly anticipated four-day visit to Asia’s most Catholic nation. During his stay, he will tour areas hit hard by Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) in 2013, and deliver Mass to what’s expected to be a millions-strong crowd in the capital.

TIME Philippines

Pope Francis Praises Typhoon Haiyan Survivors and Filipino Migrant Workers

Pope Francis, Benigno Aquino III
Pope Francis, right, is welcomed by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III as he arrives for the welcoming ceremony on Jan. 16, 2015, at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila Bullit Marquez—AP

Tribute paid to the "heroic strength, faith and resilience" of Filipinos

Pope Francis marked his second day in Asia’s most Catholic nation by praising the contribution made to society by Filipino migrant workers as well as paying tribute to victims and survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, which killed over 6,000 people when it tore through the archipelago nation in November 2013.

Speaking at the Malacanang presidential palace on Friday, the Pontiff told tens of thousands of rapturous Filipinos, as well as President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, that his “visit is meant to express my closeness to our brothers and sisters who endured the suffering, loss and devastation” caused by Haiyan.

“Together with many people throughout the world, I have admired the heroic strength, faith and resilience demonstrated by so many Filipinos in the face of this natural disaster, and so many others,” he said.

Pope Francis is the first leader of the Holy See in two decades to visit the Philippines, where the 100 million population is 80% Catholic. He arrived in the Southeast Asian nation on Thursday from Sri Lanka, where he called for reconciliation after the island state’s brutal civil war.

Speaking in Manila on Friday, the 78-year-old Argentine also singled out the country’s many migrant workers for praise, citing the “oft-neglected yet real contribution of Filipinos of the diaspora to the life and welfare of the societies in which they live.”

Read the full transcript of his speech here.

TIME Egypt

Egypt Court Orders Retrial of Mubarak in Corruption Case

It's the only case keeping Mubarak behind bars

(CAIRO) — Egypt’s top appeals court has ordered the retrial of deposed President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons in a corruption case, a move that could pave the way for the former autocrat’s release.

The Appeals Court announced its ruling in a brief session Tuesday, carried live on several Egyptian TV networks.

The earlier verdict had sentenced Mubarak to three years imprisonment and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, to four years each while four other defendants were acquitted. Mubarak’s lawyers appealed that ruling.

It’s the only case keeping Mubarak behind bars. When a new court is assigned to look into the case, it could order Mubarak freed pending the trial.

Mubarak has been cleared in the case over the killing of protesters during Egypt’s 2011 uprising.

TIME celebrities

A Devoted Sean Penn Helps U.S. Man Recover From Bolivia Ordeal

Jacob Ostreicher
Jacob Ostreicher poses for a photo in Los Angeles on Dec. 15, 2014 Damian Dovarganes—AP

Penn became convinced Ostreicher had been unjustly imprisoned since mid-2011 so corrupt authorities could drain the assets of the $25 million rice-farming operation in which he was a minor investor

(LIMA, PERU) — It began with an attempt to salvage an ill-fated investment in Bolivian rice farms, devolved into a Third World prison nightmare and climaxed with an escape engineered with the help of actor Sean Penn.

But, so far, there has been no Hollywood ending for Jacob Ostreicher.

In the year since he was spirited out of Bolivia, the 55-year-old has struggled to rebuild a life upended by corrupt officials who tried to extort Ostreicher and had him imprisoned without charge while bleeding the rice venture dry.

The ordeal shredded the Brooklyn man’s marriage, drained his bank account and nearly stole his sanity.

“Certain days I don’t function,” Ostreicher told The Associated Press in a series of phone conversations, his first media interview since his rescue. “It’s hard to start a new life.”

The former flooring business owner lives alone in Los Angeles and says he’s still trying to find a new line of work. He says he is not living off charity, never has, but has gotten huge emotional support from family, the Jewish community and a few of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

None have done more than Penn.

In late 2012, the Oscar-winning actor flew to Bolivia to investigate Ostreicher’s case at the urging of actor Mark Wahlberg.

Ostreicher, who is an Orthodox Jew, had the attention of the Aleph Institute, a foundation that helps incarcerated Jews. The Florida-based group asked Wahlberg to reach out to Penn, who is widely known for his Haiti relief efforts and closeness to leftist Latin American leaders.

Penn became convinced Ostreicher had been unjustly imprisoned since mid-2011 so corrupt authorities could drain the assets of the $25 million rice-farming operation in which he was a minor investor. Though he was accused of money-laundering, no evidence was ever presented.

Penn was self-effacing when asked about his odd-couple friendship with Ostreicher and why he decided to help. “What can I say? He was likable,”

When Penn asked Bolivian President Evo Morales to intercede, Penn got a tepid response.

So he exposed the extortion ring, sparking a scandal that eventually would see 14 Bolivian officials jailed — the ring’s No. 2 figure entered a guilty plea last week — while others fled the country.

Penn then got Ostreicher moved to a medical clinic. The New Yorker had withered to 107 pounds from a liquids-only hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. Penn leveraged his Venezuelan connections — he was close to the late President Hugo Chavez — to get armed Venezuelan security guards assigned to protect him, fearing he’d be targeted for exposing the extortion ring.

Even though he had endured more than 30 court hearings, Ostreicher continued to insist he wanted to clear his name in Bolivia.

Penn told him to let it go.

“He held me down with both hands and looked at me and said, ‘I am going to get you home,'” Ostreicher recalled.

But all Penn could accomplish was to get Ostreicher’s confinement in the maximum-security prison exchanged for house arrest.

Then, in late 2013, Ostreicher arrived from South America on a commercial flight from Peru to Los Angeles International Airport, where Penn was waiting in the jetway to receive him.

“He is fully responsible, Sean, for saving my life,” Ostreicher said. “He is much more than a friend.”

Neither Penn nor Ostreicher would discuss the secretive escape in any detail, although Ostreicher said his older brother, Aron, paid for it and that he endured a nerve-wracking flight to La Paz from the eastern city of Santa Cruz sitting near Bolivia’s chief of police praying he wouldn’t be recognized. He said he wore a disguise.

Bolivia claimed the escape was orchestrated by the CIA, which Ostreicher denies. He would say only that it involved “professionals” whom he declined to identify.

During his years in Bolivia, Ostreicher’s marriage fell apart, with his wife staying in New York. Penn took him in and, for a few weeks, Ostreicher said, he did little more than stay rolled up in a fetal position on the couch.

“I literally was crying to Sean that I want to go back to Bolivia,” he told the AP.

“Sean sat with me for hours, sometimes sitting with me all night, rubbing my back,” he would later recount at a dinner honoring Penn.

The actor enlisted his own family and friends in the healing.

“I told Sean I’d like to find a person who had it all and lost it all to give me a reason that I should wake up every morning,” said Ostreicher.

Penn introduced him to Robert Downey Jr.

Downey, who hit bottom in the 1990s when drug addiction troubles landed him in jail for a year, counseled Ostreicher, then sent him clothing “literally in the tens of thousands of dollars” — Gucci suits, sweaters, sneakers, underwear, a Harry Winston watch.

Penn, meanwhile, was at Ostreicher’s side for some of his most trying moments.

When his daughter, Gitty, flew with her husband and their five children from New Jersey for a February reunion, Ostreicher was terrified, he said.

He tried to find excuses to avoid the meeting, telling Penn he didn’t have the proper clothing.

“I need a white shirt. I need a black suit. I need a certain hat. And Sean jumped into his car and brought me back six hats.”

“He said, ‘One of them has got to be the right one.'”

When they arrived for the reunion, the kids didn’t want to come to him.

“They didn’t recognize me, the old, sick man I became,” he said.

He began telling the kids about the “very strong man” who sneaked him out of Bolivia. “You want to meet this man?” Ostreicher asked. Then, he pointed to Penn.

“I told Sean, ‘Show the kids your biceps.'”

“Sean literally went down on his knees, unbuttoned his shirt and flexed his muscles for my grandchildren so they should come closer to me. And this is how they started coming to me.”

Asked about the incident, Penn paused briefly.

“Jacob has a way,” he said, “of putting someone on the spot.”

___

Associated Press writer Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.

TIME russia

Putin Critic Protests House Arrest By Cutting Off Tracking Bracelet

RUSSIA-POLITICS-JUSTICE-NAVALNY-VERDICT
Russian anti-Kremlin opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks as he attends the verdict announcement of his fraud trial at a court in Moscow on December 30, 2014. Dmitry Serebryakov—AFP/Getty Images

"The bracelet with some effort has been cut off with kitchen scissors"

A leading protest figure in Russia’s beleaguered opposition camp defied the terms of his house arrest on Monday, announcing that he had severed a tracking device that he was ordered to wear by a Russian court.

Alexei Navalny posted a picture of a severed bracelet on his blog, Reuters reports.

“I refuse to comply with the requirements of my illegal detention under house arrest,” Navalny wrote on the blog, which draws up to 1 million readers a month. “The bracelet with some effort has been cut off with kitchen scissors.”

Navalny was handed a suspended sentence in late December on charges of embezzling 30 million rubles from two firms. Russian authorities launched an investigation against Navalny in 2010, shortly after he exposed evidence of corruption in Russia’s state-owned corporation amounting to $4 billion in fraudulent payments.

TIME Hong Kong

Billionaire Hong Kong Tycoon and Former Official Jailed for Corruption

In this photo taken through a tinted glass, former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Rafael Hui, right, is escorted by a staff member from Hong Kong Correctional Services inside a van outside the High Court in Hong Kong on Dec. 19, 2014 Vincent Yu—AP

Case seen as a victory for transparency in China's freewheeling financial hub

The former No. 2 official in the Hong Kong government, Rafael Hui, and billionaire Thomas Kwok — until last week co-chairman of the world’s second largest property developer by market value, Sun Hung Kai — were sentenced Tuesday to 7½ and five years in prison respectively on graft charges.

Hui was ordered to pay the Hong Kong government $1.4 million, equivalent to the bribe he had been found guilty of accepting from Kwok, the South China Morning Post reports.

The two are the most prominent Hong Kongers to date to be snared by the city’s Independent Commission Against Corruption. They were found guilty last week of colluding in the early to middle part of the past decade to ensure advantages for Sun Hung Kai.

“It is vitally important in these times the Hong Kong government and business community remain and are seen to remain corruption-free,” said Judge Andrew Macrae, before delivering his sentence on the 66-year-old Hui and 63-year-old Kwok.

Kwok’s top aide Thomas Chan and ex-stock-exchange official Francis Kwan were also sentenced to six and five years respectively. His brother Raymond Kwok was acquitted of all charges.

[SCMP]

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Billionaire Convicted of Conspiracy to Bribe Top Official

Thomas Kwok
Thomas Kwok, co-chairman of Hong Kong developer Sun Hung Kai Properties, arrives at the High Court in Hong Kong on Dec. 19, 2014 Kin Cheung—AP

Thomas Kwok has a net worth of over $10 billion, making him one of Asia's richest people

Hong Kong billionaire Thomas Kwok was convicted of conspiring to bribe one of the city’s former top officials on Friday, following five days of deliberations by a nine-member jury.

Kwok was found guilty of colluding with Hong Kong’s former No.2 government official Rafael Hui to make payments of $1.1 million and ensure favorable treatment for his real estate company, Bloomberg reports.

Kwok’s brother Raymond, who was also arrested in March 2012 and is co-chairman of the world’s second largest real estate company Sun Hung Kai, was cleared of all charges, while two others were convicted for their role in the scandal.

Both brothers are worth around $10 billion each, placing them in the top tier of Asia’s richest people.

Hui, the former chief secretary of Hong Kong, was convicted on five charges including conspiracy to accept bribes while he was in office.

[Bloomberg]

TIME Soccer

FIFA’s Ethics Investigator Quits Over the Handling of His World Cup Probe

FIFA's Michael Garcia photographed during a press conference at the Home of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, on Friday, 27. July 2012 Walter Bieri—Keystone/AP

"My role in this process is at an end," says Michael Garcia

FIFA’s independent ethics investigator Michael Garcia has resigned in protest over the handling of his report on the controversial bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup.

Garcia said FIFA’s 42-page summary of his 430-page report was “erroneous.” He quit after the world soccer governing body rejected his complaint, the BBC reports.

“It is the lack of leadership on these issues within FIFA that leads me to conclude that my role in this process is at an end,” he said.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter said: “I am surprised by Mr Garcia’s decision. The work of the ethics committee will nonetheless continue.”

Garcia’s report probed alleged corruption in the designation of Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts in 2018 and 2022. His resignation adds to the turmoil surrounding the organization.

“We wanted all transparency but this is a new failure for FIFA,” said Michel Platini, president of the governing body of European soccer, UEFA.

FIFA said in a statement that the acting chairman of the ethics committee would take Garcia’s place, pending the election of a successor.

[BBC]

TIME China

Obama Issues a Warning Over Xi Jinping’s Growing Power

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a press conference at the Great Hall of People on Nov. 12, 2014 in Beijing.
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a press conference at the Great Hall of People on Nov. 12, 2014 in Beijing. Feng Li—Getty Images

The Chinese President worries his neighbors with his fierce nationalism, Obama says

U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday gave a stern assessment of what he called Chinese President Xi Jinping’s quick consolidation of power, expressing worries about China’s dubious human rights record and insistent nationalism.

Obama told members of the Business Roundtable in Washington that the Chinese President “has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping,” referring to the Chinese leader who succeeded Mao Zedong in 1978, Reuters reports.

“Everybody’s been impressed by [Xi’s] clout inside of China after only a year and a half or two years,” he said. A recent TIME cover described the leader of the world’s most populous nation as an “emperor” and opined that he would be China’s most consequential leader since Deng.

Yet that clout, Obama said, has been put to regressive uses, including the enactment of policies that suppress dissent and harm human rights, as well as encourage a fierce “nationalism that worries his [Xi’s] neighbors.” Despite a highly publicized anti-corruption drive, China has also backslid 20 places to #100 on the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, a Berlin-based watchdog’s well-respected ranking of countries by transparency.

Still, Obama added that Xi appears to be sincere in his wish for “good relations” with the United States. Obama traveled to Beijing last month to meet the Chinese president and attend the APEC summit, where the two leaders announced a blockbuster deal on addressing climate change. Obama told the roundtable that American businesses in China should speak up if they feel “strong-armed” by Chinese authorities on various issues, even if doing so jeopardizes their success in the Chinese market.

The Obama administration always walks a fine line between courting a cooperative relationship with China and critiquing the nation’s attitude toward human rights. It has found doing so all the harder in recent months, as the central government in Beijing and protesters in Hong Kong remain deeply opposed over the future of China’s most open city.

Xi’s government in Beijing says it has the right to vet candidates for Hong Kong’s top leadership role, an election plan that Hong Kong protesters say flouts democratic principles. China’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, has accused the U.S. of being involved in Hong Kong’s so-called Umbrella Revolution, which erupted in protest over Beijing’s restrictions on candidacy.

The U.S. has said that it supports a “meaningful” choice of candidates for Hong Kong voters, but denies any involvement in the protests that have been going on for 68 days.

Obama told the Chinese president at APEC that the U.S. will “consistently speak out on the right of people to express themselves” and support elections in Hong Kong that are “transparent and fair and reflective of the opinions of people there.” Xi has stressed that the conflict is a domestic affair on which the U.S. should not have an opinion.

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