Thailand put its billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra on trial for corruption today, almost two years after he was toppled from power in a military coup. Mr Thaksin and his wife Pojaman, loved by the poor and loathed by the Bangkok elite, were not on hand at the Supreme Court for the opening of a legal saga that could put them behind bars for 13 years. The case is only one of many being launched against Mr Thaksin and his allies, and threatens to bog down a new government led by Thaksin loyalists which is already facing mass protests in the streets.
The Supreme Court is considering whether the former prime minister, a self-made tycoon who now owns the English football side Manchester City, illegally arranged for his wife to buy a prime chunk of Bangkok real estate for just one-third its appraised value. "We are confident that our evidence will be enough to prove in the court that Thaksin and his wife are not guilty," their lawyer Anek Khamchum said.
Mr Thaksin was ousted from power by royalist generals in the military, who accused him of widespread corruption, undermining the nation's democracy and insulting Thailand's revered king. Hearings will last two months. Because it is the Supreme Court, however, Mr Thaksin and his wife would have no avenue of appeal and they have already suffered several setbacks. Three of his top lawyers were jailed last month over claims they tried to bribe a judge, more than US$ 2 billion (Dh7.3bn) his assets have been frozen, and he was recently blocked from leaving the country.
Thailand's judges were meanwhile ruling on two other cases today that touched on his close supporters including the current prime minister Samak Sundaravej. At the Constitutional Court, judges ruled that the Samak government had wrongly signed an agreement to back efforts by neighbouring Cambodia to win UN recognition for a 900-year-old temple on the border. The court said any matters dealing with the border required parliamentary approval, which was never sought.
The ruling opens the door to impeachment proceedings against the entire cabinet. The agriculture minister Somsak Prissanananthakul told reporters after the weekly cabinet meeting that Mr Samak was not worried by the ruling. "The prime minister said he will let justice take its course. He is not worried at all," the minister said. But Wiszanu Boonmarat of Burapha University said the verdict would add to the pressure on the government for either new elections or top-level resignations.
"There is no alternative to taking political responsibility. This is the country's highest law," he said. "The government no longer has political legitimacy." Later Tuesday, the Supreme Court is set to deliver a verdict on vote fraud charges against the former speaker of parliament, Yongyut Tiyapairat. That case could eventually implicate the entire ruling party and force new elections. The cases add to the problems already faced by Mr Samak.
He survived a vote of no confidence last month, but remains the target of protests that have taken to the streets every day for seven weeks. Activists from the so-called People's Alliance for Democracy want the prime minister to resign, accusing him of acting as a puppet for Mr Thaksin. *AFP