Thailand set to indict former PM Thaksin over royal insult


  • World
  • Wednesday, 29 May 2024

FILE PHOTO: Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is expected to be arrested upon his return as he ends almost two decades of self-imposed exile, waves at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, Thailand August 22, 2023. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/ File Photo

BANGKOK (Reuters) -Thailand's attorney-general will indict former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for allegedly insulting the monarchy, an official said on Wednesday, in a setback to a political heavyweight whose loyalists are currently in government.

The complaint, lodged by the royalist military that ousted the government of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, had stemmed from an interview the influential tycoon gave to foreign media in 2015. Other charges include violating a computer crime law.

"The attorney-general has decided to indict Thaksin on all charges," spokesperson Prayuth Bejraguna said, adding he must appear in court on June 18.

Thaksin, 74, denies wrongdoing and has repeatedly pledged loyalty to the crown, criticism of which is forbidden under Thailand's lese-majeste law, one of the world's strictest of its kind.

Thaksin would be the highest-profile case among more than 270 prosecutions in recent years under the controversial law, which carries a maximum jail term of 15 years for each perceived insult of the royal family.

Thaksin did not appear at Wednesday's hearing, having been infected with COVID-19.

His lawyer, Winyat Chartmontri, said a comprehensive defence had been prepared and Thaksin would seek bail. He questioned the authenticity of the video of the interview in which the alleged insult was made.

"Thaksin Shinawatra is ready to prove his innocence in the justice system," Winyat told a press conference.

CENTRAL FIGURE

Thaksin founded the populist Pheu Thai party. His family's parties have won all but one election since 2001, with three Shinawatra governments toppled by coups or court rulings.

The billionaire returned to Thailand in 2023 from 15 years of self-imposed exile, during which he remained a central figure throughout repeated bouts of political upheaval.

He was convicted of abuse of power and conflicts of interest and sentenced to eight years in prison, later commuted to one year by the king. He was released on parole in February after just six months in detention.

Pheu Thai leads the current government, with Thaksin's business ally Srettha Thavisin the prime minister and daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra the party chief.

The indictment was announced days after an opposition lawmaker and an activist musician were given jail terms for alleged royal insults. The palace typically does not comment on the law.

The popular opposition Move Forward Party has found itself in hot water over its campaign to amend the law, with the Constitutional Court due to decide whether to dissolve the party, which would see bans for its leadership.

A separate complaint with another body is seeking life bans for 44 current and former Move Forward legislators.

Thaksin's smooth return and relatively short time in detention, spent in hospital, has fueled speculation he struck a deal with his rivals in the conservative establishment and military, which he has blamed for trying to stifle Shinawatra governments. His allies have denied any such pact.

Thaksin has been active since his release, meeting supporters and politicians, while saying he has retired from politics. Commentators have anticipated he will wield significant political influence from behind the scenes, raising the possibility of another confrontation with the establishment.

Political analyst Titipol Phakdeewanich said the indictment could be an attempt by authorities to show balance, in light of royal insults cases against activists and Move Forward, but that recent developments indicated Thaksin "will still be able to weather this".

Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University said the indictment could be a warning to Thaksin to stay in line.

"Now his adversaries see this as 'Thaksin's back', he's fully back in Thai politics, and maybe he crossed the line," he said. "If he doesn't shut up and doesn't stop maneuvering and politicking, if they continue to see him as an enlarging, intensifying threat, then the charges will make their way through the court system."

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um, Chayut Setboonsarng and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Martin Petty and Timothy Heritage)

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