By Martin Petty
BANGKOK (Reuters) - A dented silver Ferrari, a dead Thai policeman whose body was dragged for 200 meters under its wheels, a family driver ready to take the fall for the wealthy 27-year-old heir to the world-famous Red Bull energy drink empire.
This was the story splashed across the front pages in Thailand on Tuesday and a hot topic on web boards, where the common assumption was that a culture of impunity for the wealthy business and political elite would once again prevail.
Vorayuth Yoovidhya, a grandson of the late founder of Red Bull, billionaire Chaleo Yoovidhya, had initially fled the scene but later confessed to hitting the policeman, police said. He was released hours later on 500,000 baht ($16,000) bail.
Though Vorayuth has yet to appear in court, there seemed little faith among the public that justice would be served.
"Jail is only for the poor. The rich never get punished. Find a scapegoat," said one of a stream of comments posted on the popular Thai website, Panthip.com.
Another on news site Manager.co.th read: "He'll probably just get a suspended sentence. What's the cost of a life?"
Suspended jail terms do seem to be the norm for politically powerful or well-connected Thais.
In July, in the space of five days, two ruling party lawmakers and a former deputy prime minister were found guilty of defamation and received suspended sentences, while speaker of the senate Teeradej Meepien was adjudged to have illegally awarded himself monthly meeting allowances when he served as chief ombudsman. Teeradej won't be seeing a jail cell.
Neither will underage driver Orachorn Thephasadin na Ayudhya, given a suspended two-year prison sentence on Friday for causing the deaths of nine people in 2010 when the car she was driving collided with a passenger van.
That case caused outrage on social media over how a young girl with an aristocratic family name managed to escape jail and emerged with only a seven-year driving ban.
"What many of these cases have in common is that the immediate reaction of those responsible is 'how can I get away with it?'," said Voranai Vanijaka, a political and social commentator for the Bangkok Post newspaper.
"It's who you know, not what you know and it's now a cultural norm. People believe the rich and the connected will get away with it. Thais are disgusted, but we accept it."
Many cases don't even get to court, with some ministers or top bureaucrats found to have been involved in corruption losing their jobs but facing no criminal action.
Sometimes, a simple apology suffices.
Just last week, a popular actress accused of tax evasion, Chermarn "Ploy" Boonyasak, wept before the media and blamed her accountant for an honest mistake, despite reportedly posting a photograph of herself on social media with the son of a former bureaucrat overseeing the revenue department, bearing the message "don't mess with us".
The "honest mistake" argument was also used by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001, when he was acquitted of concealing 4.5 billion baht of his wealth behind the names of four domestic servants and a businessman.
In a separate case, Thaksin, who was overthrown in a 2006 coup, was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for a conflict of interest in 2008 but fled into exile. Thaksin claims the sentence, and other pending cases, are politically motivated.
Conflicts of interest are common complaints in Thailand. The transfer last month of the son of Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung -- who oversees the police force -- from the military to the police caused a stir among opposition politicians, but not just because of alleged nepotism.
Duang Yoobamrung was famously acquitted in 2004 of shooting dead a decorated policeman in a crowded nightclub because of insufficient evidence. Duang was discharged by the military for desertion, having fled to Malaysia to avoid arrest, but he was reinstated several years later.
According to media reports, Duang has been assigned to work for the Metropolitan Police as a shooting instructor.
(Additional reporting by Sinsiri Tiwutanond; Editing by Alan Raybould and Nick Macfie)
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