A Thai court issued an arrest warrant Tuesday for ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on terrorism charges, accusing the fugitive former leader of fomenting two months of unrest in Bangkok that left 88 people dead.
If found guilty of the charges, he could face the death penalty.
Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and later fled abroad ahead of a corruption conviction, has been accused by the government of being a key force behind Red Shirt protesters who seized areas of downtown Bangkok before being overcome by army troops last week.
Thaksin denies involvement. His lawyer claimed Tuesday the charge would undermine hopes of reconciliation in Thailand.
Thaksin spoke regularly by video link in the initial stages of the rallies, which began peacefully. He has publicly expressed support for the Red Shirts’ cause, but has denied government allegations that he bankrolled the movement.
The demonstrations have deepened rifts in Thai society between the mostly rural poor supporters of Thaksin and current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose government they accuse of being oblivious to their plight.
On Monday, parliamentary opposition leaders moved to impeach Abhisit over his handling of the rioting.
The measure, which would need approval in the Senate, and a move to censure top Cabinet officials were expected to be easily defeated if put to a vote. They were expected to be debated during a special session of Parliament next week, the Bangkok Post newspaper reported.
Life in the Thai capital was largely back to normal Tuesday — with roads and shops in the protest zone reopened — although businesses are still counting the cost of the violence, which culminated in a wave of arson by protesters targeting malls, banks and government buildings.
The Cabinet decided Tuesday that the city of 10 million and nearly a third of Thailand’s provinces will remain under a nighttime curfew for another four days as a precaution against further unrest.
The Department of Special Investigations alleges that Thaksin committed, threatened to commit or supported terrorist acts.
Criminal Court Judge Krerkrit Ittarat said it was up to the DSI to proceed with the prosecution and coordinate Thaksin's extradition with the Foreign Ministry. Previous attempts to extradite Thaksin have failed.
Thaksin, who is based principally in Dubai, is already barred from entry into Britain, where he earlier lived, and most European countries. But United Arab Emirates authorities have said the multi-millionaire could remain as long as he refrained from political activities. There were reports that Thaksin is currently in the seaside resort of Budva, in Montenegro.
On his Twitter page, Thaksin said the charges were “based on false evidence.”
Thaksin’s London-based lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, said the government “has perverted justice through the laying of a charge that violates logic, law and any claim of hopes for reconciliation.”
Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said the government would work with Interpol to arrest Thaksin.
Thaksin is regarded as a hero by many Red Shirts, mostly rural and urban poor who benefited from his populist policies during his 2001-2006 tenure as prime minister. The former telecommunications tycoon was convicted in absentia in 2008 of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison.
Their Bangkok protest followed four years of political instability triggered by Thaksin’s ouster. Rifts remain deep in Thai society, and most analysts expect further political conflict and possibly renewed violence.
The Red Shirts have demanded that Abhisit resign and call early elections. They claim he came to power illegitimately with the help of back-room deals and military pressure.
Earlier this month, Abhisit offered to hold elections on Nov. 14 but that plan fell through when Red Shirt leaders made more demands. Abhisit now says elections will not be held until the threat of violence is completely quelled — although he will likely remain under pressure to call an early vote. His term expires in late 2011.
With another Red Shirt leader agreeing to meet police Tuesday, all of the movement’s main leaders were under detention or have submitted to questioning.
Before appearing before investigators Tuesday, Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said the government overreacted to the protests. He appeared voluntarily because he has immunity as a member of Parliament.
“What’s hurtful is that 70-80 Red Shirt people who passed away were accused of being terrorists even when they didn’t have any weapons in their hands,” he said. “Today the Thai society has to think carefully who the terrorists are.”
But the deputy prime minister warned that the movement behind the protests is still a threat. Abhisit has also accused Red Shirt followers of planning further protests and violence.