By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) – The leader of one of Thailand’s biggest political parties apologised on Tuesday over the conduct of a former executive accused by more than a dozen women of sexual abuse in what some activists have called the country’s first “MeToo” moment.
Prinn Panitchpakdi, 44, resigned as deputy leader of the Democrat Party last week and was charged on Saturday with sexual abuse and rape after complaints were filed against him by five women separately.
Prinn, the son of former World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief Supachai Panitchpakdi, has denied the charges and was freed on bail on Sunday.
Nine more women have since come forward with similar allegations against Prinn, according to police. Prinn has made no public comment since the new allegations were made and said he was unavailable when contacted by Reuters on Tuesday.
Party leader Jurin Laksanawisit, a close associate of Prinn, on Tuesday apologised over the scandal and acknowledged his role in endorsing him as a senior party member.
“I’m deeply sorry and must apologise for everything that has happened that was linked to a Democrat Party member,” Jurin told a news conference, without elaborating.
“As a party leader, I must acknowledge that I was a key part in an effort to bring Prinn into the party.”
The hashtag #MeToo has trended on social media in Thailand since last week, with users expressing outrage over the scope of the alleged misconduct and a perception of impunity for the political elite.
Jurin, who is commerce minister and deputy prime minister in the ruling coalition, said his party stands against sexual harassment and violence against children and women.
He also resigned as chairman of two government committees on gender equality and women’s policies, and said the Democrat Party would conduct its own internal investigation.
“We will not step in to protect Prinn, nor intervene in the justice process,” he said.
Trairong Piwpan, deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Bureau, confirmed to Reuters that 14 victims had so far come forward with allegations against Prinn, nine of whom met on Monday with police, who were considering the cases.
According to Sittra Biabungkerd of the People’s Lawyers Foundation, a legal assistance group representing the victims, all were between 17 and 30 at the time of the alleged offences, some of which were more than a decade ago, and five have said they were raped.
“There are many others who are still afraid to come forward,” Sittra told Reuters.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Martin Petty and Angus MacSwan)