Bangkok: Thailand`s Supreme Court ruled Friday that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra unlawfully concealed his assets while in office and abused his power for personal gain, as it prepared to issue a decision on whether his $2.29 billion fortune should be seized.
The nine-judge panel, reading a lengthy verdict, said it had unanimously agreed Thaksin and his ex-wife still held shares in Shin Corp., a telecommunications giant he founded, while he was prime minister.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power.
The court also agreed that he had shaped government policies on mobile phone regulations that profited the country`s largest service provider, also controlled by his family.
Legal experts have said that a ruling that Thaksin had hidden his shares in Shin Corp. while in office would lead to a court decision that government policies had benefited the company and constituted a conflict of interest.
Tight security was in place around the courthouse, amid government fears that Thaksin loyalists could react to the verdict with violence. Whatever the decision, Thailand`s four-year-long political turmoil is expected to persist.
The Supreme Court is broadly applying mostly untested anti-corruption statutes in determining whether Thaksin — a telecommunications tycoon before entering politics — became "unusually wealthy" by abusing his position at the head of government in 2001-2006.
They could order the confiscation of the $2.29 billion of his family`s assets frozen in Thai banks. Thaksin and an unknown portion of his family`s wealth are safely ensconced abroad.
Thaksin, who faces a two-year jail term in Thailand, was monitoring the proceedings from exile in Dubai, where he was scheduled to provide a running commentary via video link.
In an early decision favoring the prosecution, the judges dismissed defense arguments that the process leading to the trial was illegitimate.
The defense had argued that a special committee set up to investigate Thaksin included appointees who were previously involved in the popular movement to oust him. It also questioned whether the committee had legal authority to bring the charges.
In a message on Twitter early Friday, Thaksin insisted all the money he and has family accumulated was "with our own sweat, labor and brains. We never cheated."
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," said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. "Of course many people fear for the worst but we are ready to manage whatever comes."
The judges will look at whether Thaksin illegally parked his fortune with family members because he was not allowed to hold company shares while prime minister, and whether his administration implemented policies to benefit his family`s businesses, an offense that has been termed "policy corruption."
Issues include whether telecoms liberalization measures unfairly benefited the country`s main mobile phone service provider, then controlled by Thaksin`s family; and whether he unfairly promoted a US$127 million low-interest loan to neighboring Myanmar to benefit a satellite communications company also controlled by his family.
Thaksin`s critics would see a 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 that 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 would see such a 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.