BANGKOK (AFP) — Thailand put billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra on trial for corruption on Tuesday, almost two years after he was toppled from power in a military coup.
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 Thaksin and his allies, and threatens to bog down a new government -- led by Thaksin loyalists -- which suffered two legal defeats Tuesday on top of ongoing mass street protests.
The Supreme Court is considering whether Thaksin, a self-made tycoon who now owns 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 told AFP.
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, 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 two billion dollars of his assets have been frozen, and he was recently blocked from leaving the country.
Thailand's judges meanwhile ruled on two other cases Tuesday that touched on his close supporters -- including current Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.
At the Constitutional Court, judges ruled that Samak's 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.
Agriculture Minister Somsak Prissanananthakul told reporters after the weekly cabinet meeting that Samak was not worried by the ruling.
"The prime minister said he will let justice take its course. He is not worried at all," Somsak 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 found the former speaker of parliament, Yongyut Tiyapairat, guilty of vote fraud, stripping him of his office and banning him from politics for five years.
The ruling paves the way for a criminal investigation that could eventually implicate the entire ruling party and force new elections.
The cases add to the problems already faced by 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 Samak to resign, accusing him of acting as a puppet for Thaksin.
They also want to abolish most elections for parliament, making 70 percent of lawmakers appointed to their posts.
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