Thai court orders to seize ex-PM's assets

BANGKOK:Thailand's highest court ruled Friday to seize 46 billion baht ($1.4 billion) from ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's $2.29 billion in frozen assets, saying he had abused his political power for personal gain.

The Supreme Court said seizing all the frozen wealth "would be unfair as some of it was made before Thaksin became prime minister."

The verdict brings an end to a case that began after Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, was deposed by a 2006 military coup for alleged massive corruption and abuse of power.

Corruption investigations began immediately after the coup, and 76 billion baht in accounts in Thailand belonging to Thaksin and his family was frozen pending legal action.

Friday's verdict was expected be celebrated by Thaksin's foes, protested by his supporters and potentially inflame Thailand's four-year political crisis.

Security was tight around the courthouse as the nine-judge panel took 7 1/2 hours to read the verdict against Thaksin and his family. The proceedings were broadcast live on national television.

Thaksin, who faces a two-year jail term from an earlier conviction, monitored the proceedings from exile in Dubai, where he provided a commentary via a video link and Twitter.

"This is total political involvement. The government knew the result in advance," Thaksin said shortly after the verdict. "I've been prepared for the result since yesterday. I knew that I would get hit, but they are kind enough to give me back 30 billion (baht)."

An unknown portion of Thaksin's wealth was earlier moved abroad.

Hundreds of Thaksin supporters at the headquarters of the opposition Puea Thai party, which is allied to Thaksin, booed as the verdict was read. Some women began crying and one man jumped up on a chair and started screaming at a television screen showing the court proceedings.

The court ruled that Thaksin illegally concealed his ownership of stock in Shin Corp., the family's telecommunications empire, and abused his authority by crafting government policies to benefit Shin Corp.'s businesses.

The court addressed five cases of alleged "policy corruption" and ruled that in four of the five Thaksin was guilty of abusing his authority during his 2001-2006 tenure as prime minister.

One of the most prominent cases involved a US$127 million low-interest government loan to Myanmar in 2004, which the court ruled Thaksin had endorsed with the intention of securing its purchase of satellite services from Shin Satellite, then controlled by Thaksin's family.

Thaksin's government billed the loan as a way to help the impoverished military-run country finance telecommunications projects.

The court ruled that Thaksin's government set domestic satellite policies that benefited his businesses.

It also ruled that a policy to convert part of a telecommunications concession fee into an excise tax "favored Shin Corp. at the expense of the state."

The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva hopes Friday's ruling will lead to a return of stability, but has ordered a security crackdown around the country, claiming that the pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" movement may be planning violence.

"We hope for the best," government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said before the court ruling. "Of course many people fear for the worst but we are ready to manage whatever comes."

Thaksin's critics will see the guilty verdict as the culmination of a process to cleanse Thai politics that began with protests in 2006 calling for his ouster for alleged corruption which segued into a military coup in September that year. They also accuse him of disrespecting the country's constitutional monarch, 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

His supporters will view the ruling as the latest in a series of injustices that drove a democratically elected leader from office despite two sweeping election victories. They believe he is being persecuted because the traditional urban ruling class felt threatened when he empowered the country's rural majority, which was grateful for Thaksin's innovative social welfare programs.

The passions held by the two sides led to the occupation of the seat of government for several months and the seizure of the capital's two airports for a week by Thaksin's opponents in 2008, and rioting and disruption of a conference of Asian heads of government by his supporters last year.

His Red Shirt supporters continue to rally on his behalf and have promised a "million-man" march next month.

Thaksin, who fled into exile ahead of a 2008 conviction on a conflict of interest charge, rallies his followers by video and over the Internet.

His opponents accuse him of funding the Red Shirt movement to topple the government, and hope that seizing his assets will starve the movement.

But at least one analyst says the anti-government movement will not simply fade away, even if Thaksin's cash dries up.

"It would not put an end to Thailand's crisis because now Thaksin's supporters, the Red Shirts — the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — they have evolved into their own force to be reckoned with," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.