Prosecutors in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, said on Wednesday (23 November) they would charge the abbot of an influential Buddhist sect, along with four others, for alleged money laundering.
Phra Dhammachayo and his followers reportedly resisted Department of Special Investigation's (DSI) attempts to arrest him in the past. He is the abbot of Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a futuristic-looking monastery situated about 50km (30 miles) north of Bangkok.
"Prosecutors have agreed to charge Phra Dhammachayao of Dhammakaya temple on charges of conspiracy to launder money, money laundering and receiving stolen goods," Reuters quoted Somnuek Siangkong, spokesman of the Office of the Attorney General, as saying.
Dhammachayao was among several others who allegedly played a key role in an embezzlement scandal linked to the Dhammakaya temple. The DSI summoned him in 2015 for an enquiry after his temple received a large of money –Thai baht 1bn ($28m) – between March 2009 and February 2011.
Prosecutors have already postponed decision to charge the embattled monk four times. In addition to money laundering, the monk was also issued two other arrest warrants by different provincial courts, including one for alleged forest encroachment by a large meditation centre owned by the temple.
According to Bangkok Post, despite the warrants, the Thai authorities were unable to arrest 72-year-old Dhammachayo, who reportedly has cited illness or temple business for being unable to show up for police questioning. His followers also blocked an attempt by the DSI to arrest him earlier this year on the outskirts of Bangkok.
These charges are believed to have created a feud between hardcore Buddhism followers and those who support more moderate sects in the country.
Critics have accused the Dhammakaya temple of being too money-focused and claimed that it encouraged financial donations as a way to gain good karma. The temple is thought to have millions of followers across the globe. Dhammakaya temple has reportedly denied the allegations.
According to Reuters, the attorney general's office on Wednesday said the statute of limitations in the case against Dhammachayo was 15 years by when the police will have to arrest the monk.
While the monk is reported to have maintained a low profile in the recent months, the temple's public relations chief, Phra Sanitwong Wuttiwangso, said Dhammachayo has not fled abroad.
"Our abbot is very sick and cannot travel outside the temple grounds," he said.