Court right to rule out video

thaksin_pojaman

Thaksin’s antics are only making matters worse for himself

Friday’s Supreme Court decision against allowing Thaksin Shinawatra to resort to video-conferencing to defend the legitimacy of his frozen assets helped divert a potential legal controversy. And, in rejecting Thaksin’s request to make the opening statement in the frozen-wealth trial from afar, the court agreed that he could submit the statement in writing. That is a reasonable compromise that the fugitive ousted prime minister should be thankful for.

 Allowing a convicted criminal on the run to testify by video conference in another case would raise too many legal questions, the biggest one concerning how Thaksin’s fugitive status is perceived by the Thai judiciary. The foremost criticism Thailand would incur would have to do with whether the Supreme Court thought it was “all right” for him to flee the other verdict. In other words, if escaping punishment in the Ratchadapisek land case was wrong, Thaksin should not be granted the privilege of defending himself in another case from his hideout overseas.

Friday’s Supreme Court decision is a prelude to what promises to be the most politically and emotionally charged trial of the year. In July, Thaksin and his family must put up a do-or-die fight to defend their Bt76 billion worth of assets that were frozen in Thai bank accounts shortly after he was ousted in the September 2006 coup. The Attorney General has asked the court to confiscate the money on the grounds that Thaksin was unusually rich and had earned the assets through abuse of power.

The asset case will feature multifaceted legal and political complications, and the staggering amount of the money being frozen will put many past and ongoing political events into perspective. Last week, Pojaman Damapong (Thaksin’s ex-wife), Bannaphot Damapong (Pojaman’s stepbrother) and Bussaba Damapong (Bannaphot’s wife), who were on the list of 22 owners of the frozen assets, asked the court to rule whether public prosecutors were right in seeking a court decision to confiscate their assets since they (the petitioners) were not political office-holders.

A very big chunk of the frozen assets belonged to Pojaman, who divorced Thaksin late last year. The break-up triggered all kinds of rumours and conspiracy theories. Some believed the divorce was caused by a genuine husband-wife problem involving a third party. Others claimed Pojaman was simply fed up with Thaksin’s stubborn political campaign that threatened to jeopardise all family fortunes. Last but not least, the separation was thought to be a legal tactic to allow Pojaman to lay claim to her share in the frozen wealth.

The non-political-office-holder argument is expected to face stiff challenges from the prosecutors. Corruption charges involving Thaksin, after all, cover nepotism and shrewd transfers of assets to people closest to him and his former wife. Yet the burden of proof lies with the prosecutors, who will have to pinpoint how the Bt76 billion was illegally earned. The magnitude of this case, in fact, is far greater than the one Thaksin was convicted for last year.

Last October, the Supreme Court sentenced Thaksin in absentia to two years in jail for abuse of power after finding him guilty of illegally facilitating a deal for his then wife Pojaman to buy a prime block of Ratchadapisek land in Bangkok. He and Pojaman had fled to England before the ruling. Pojaman, who was acquitted in the case but is appealing a tax-evasion conviction, returned to Thailand in December after divorcing him.

By remaining a fugitive, Thaksin is making things complicated for himself, and even more so through his overseas campaign against the Thai judiciary. Now, with pro-Thaksin protesters besieging Government House and cheering his every long-distance speech broadcast to them, Thaksin is unwisely giving his opponents a good idea of what he will be capable of with more money.

If the red-shirted protesters managed to prolong their rally until July, it would be very awkward for everyone if Thaksin had to rabble-rouse the crowds one day, and continue to attack “dictatorial courts” and humbly address the Supreme Court bench as “your honour” the next. Friday’s Supreme Court decision not to allow Thaksin to testify in the assets case through satellite spares everyone extreme discomfort.

So much can still happen politically before the trial begins. Only one thing is clear at the moment: Thaksin is making it very much harder for himself.

By The Nation
Published on March 29, 2009

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