Guilty verdict for Shinawatra in graft case

October 21, 2008 12:00 am

, BANGKOK, October 21 – Thailand’s Supreme Court on Tuesday found ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra guilty of conflict of interest and sentenced him in absentia to two years in prison, a judge read.

The twice-elected premier and his wife Pojaman each faced a maximum sentence of 13 years in jail if found guilty on the corruption charges.

Thaksin was accused of using his political influence to help his wife buy a plot of prime Bangkok real estate from a government agency in 2003 at one-third of its estimated value.

The couple did not appear at the Supreme Court for the verdict at 2:00 pm (0700 GMT) as they both fled Thailand for Britain in August, claiming they would not get a fair trial on the mounting graft charges against them.

Thaksin, a telecoms tycoon who became the first Thai prime minister to complete his first term and be re-elected, was ousted in a coup in September 2006 by the military.

The junta claimed there was massive corruption and abuse of power under his rule and set up a corruption investigation unit, which has stacked charges up against Thaksin.

The Supreme Court has so far agreed to hear five cases, and there are also five arrest warrants out against him.

Pojaman was on July 31 convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to three years in jail. She appealed, but analysts have said the court decision against her stunned Thaksin and helped spark the couple’s flight into exile.

Although the former premier is no longer in Thailand and plans to claim political asylum in Britain, his shadow hangs heavy over Thai politics.

His allies in the People Power Party (PPP) won elections in December, the first since the coup, angering the old power cliques in the palace, military and bureaucracy who tried to rid Thailand of Thaksin’s influence.

Thaksin’s old foes in the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched streets protests in May claiming PPP was running Thailand on behalf of the former premier and was trying to amend the constitution to help him escape graft charges.

The protests have steadily escalated, with thousands of PAD supporters seizing the prime minister’s Bangkok offices in late August.

Earlier this month, two people were killed and nearly 500 injured when police fired tear gas on protesters who were trying to block parliament.

Since the bloody street clashes, pressure has been mounting on the current Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, to resign to take responsibility for the street violence.

Somjai Phagaphasvivat, an analyst at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, said whatever the verdict Tuesday, political turmoil was likely to continue.

"Thai society is divided into two groups, those who support Thaksin and those who are against him, which makes a high chance there will be confrontation," he told AFP.

"The verdict may be one thing that speeds up that confrontation."



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