Fri, Jun 22, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Charges against former Thai prime minister reach court

AFP , BANGKOK

Thai prosecutors yesterday laid formal criminal charges against ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the first case against him to reach court since last September's coup.

Thaksin and his wife Pojaman, who are both out of the country, have been charged over a controversial land purchase in 2003, prosecutors said.

They were each charged with three violations of anti-corruption laws on accusations that Thaksin illegally influenced the deal to allow Pojaman to buy the land from a government agency at a bargain price.

The charges come just days after 52.9 billion baht (US$1.52 billion) in assets belonging to Thaksin and his family were frozen as part of other ongoing corruption investigations against him.

Thaksin has been in exile since he was ousted by the military, while his wife was hospitalized in Singapore earlier this week.

Both Thaksin and Pojaman could be jailed for up to 13 years and each face a fine of up to 200,000 baht if convicted of yesterday's charges.

Prosecutors read the charges before the Supreme Court, where a special panel of judges tasked with hearing political crimes will consider them.

The judges said they would decide on July 10 whether to accept the case.

If it goes ahead, prosecutors will be required to present Thaksin and his wife in person during the opening arguments.

Pichit Cheunban, a lawyer for Thaksin and his wife, said the billionaire would wait to decide whether to return until after the court decides on taking the case.

Although the government has insisted Thaksin would be allowed to return home to defend himself in court, his lawyer has voiced concerns about his safety.

If the couple fail to appear, the court could throw out the case, lawyers have said, citing the court's procedural rules.

At the end of the trial, neither side would be able to appeal the verdict.

Prosecutors are seeking to have the five hectare plot of land confiscated.

Pojaman bought the plot in Bangkok for the relatively cheap price of 772 million baht in 2003 from the Bank of Thailand's Financial Institution Development Fund.

The land's value had earlier been estimated at 2.1 billion baht, the attorney-general said.

Investigators allege the transaction was illegal because as the head of government, Thaksin oversaw the fund and its finances, thus making the sale a conflict of interest.

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