x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

No UAE embassy representatives accompanied smuggler to airport: official

A UAE embassy official in Thailand denied allegations that embassy representatives accompanied a man to the airport just before he was arrested for allegedly smuggling exotic animals.

A Malayan sun bear was among the animals found. They have been transferred from a veterinary centre to a government wildlife care facility.
A Malayan sun bear was among the animals found. They have been transferred from a veterinary centre to a government wildlife care facility.

ABU DHABI // A UAE embassy official in Bangkok yesterday denied allegations that embassy representatives accompanied an Emirati man to an airport just before he was arrested with suitcases full of sedated animals.

Omar al Zarooni said embassy representatives did not know the man before he was arrested on animal smuggling charges.

"Nobody from the embassy was with him, and they do not know him," he said. "We are following this case, as it is the embassy's role that we should follow up. But since the beginning, it has had no relation with this case."

Steven Galster, the director of Freeland, a non-profit organisation that works closely with Thai authorities to combat wildlife smuggling, said he had reason to believe embassy representatives accompanied the man to the airport to see him off.

"Maybe they are just buddies, maybe they just went to the police station with them," he said. "But these were no ordinary smugglers. Our sources had indicated that they were there, sending someone off from the embassy, and were actually with these guys."

NM, 36, was checking into first class on an Emirates airline flight from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Dubai on May 13 when staff found two sedated baby leopards hidden in flat cages in his luggage. Other baggage was found near by containing two more leopards, a monkey, a gibbon and a Malayan sun bear. He denies any knowledge of those.

NM was charged with violating the wild animal reservation and preservation act, and released on bail. Conviction carries a sentence of up to four years in jail and a fine of 40,000 Thai baht (Dh4,900) .

Thai police are also investigating other suspected animal smugglers who were booked into first class on the same Emirates flight. They have received a list of passengers from the airline and are trying to match that information with the airport security check, said Bussara Tirakalyanapan, a senior programmes officer at Freeland.

Acting as a liaison and translator for local officials, she said the information came from Col Kittipong Khawsaman, deputy chief of the natural resources and environmental crime suppression division of Thailand's Central Investigation Bureau.

Col Kittipong and Freeland officials have alleged that an unnamed Thai politician and two police officers have been putting pressure on those involved in the investigation to have NM's passport returned so that he can leave the country before his court date on May 30. However, Col Kittipong said, Thai police have refused to return the passport, and the case will move forward.

Freeland officials say they have received calls claiming that NM is receiving help from Thai politicians who have links to the UAE.

Animal smuggling is common in Thailand, though prosecution is rare. Authorities said they believe this was not NM's first trip to Thailand to transport animals to the Gulf, where smuggled exotic animals are often kept as pets in homes or private zoos, or bred for profit.

The animals in this case, which are all believed to be less than two months old, have been transferred from a veterinary centre to a government wildlife care facility.

econroy@thenational.ae