BANGKOK — A Thai court on Thursday sentenced former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in absentia to two years in prison over his handling of a state lottery program he initiated while in office more than a decade ago.
His conviction by the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions was for malfeasance, for carrying out a policy judged to be in violation of the law or official regulations.
Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and has been absent from Thailand since 2008, when he fled to avoid serving a two-year prison term on a conflict of interest conviction.
He was sentenced in April to three years’ imprisonment for ordering Thailand’s Export-Import Bank to make a loan to Myanmar which was used to pay a satellite communications company then controlled by him and his family.
It is not clear why this year’s cases were completed such a long time after the alleged offenses.
The lottery case involved the establishment in 2003 of an effort to mimic the illegal underground lottery, a flexible game in which people could pick two- and three-digit numbers and bet small amounts, compared with the official system of lottery tickets with fixed numbers and fewer potential winning opportunities.
The illegal lottery is hugely popular, and Thaksin’s scheme was an attempt to steer some of the money that went to it to government coffers instead.
The court found that Thaksin ignored standard administrative practice in starting the new lottery, which was discontinued when he was forced from office.
Thaksin, who maintains a home in Dubai and travels frequently, could not be reached for comment but has consistently denied any wrongdoing while in office and described the cases against him as politically motivated.
Thaksin used his wealth as a telecommunications billionaire to create a political party that won a 2001 general election, making him prime minister. By instituting populist policies, he won the allegiance of many of the country’s rural majority and urban poor.
His political popularity, however, threatened the influence of the country’s traditional ruling circle, including royalists, industrialists and the military, and after protests accusing him of abuse of power, the army ousted him in a 2006 coup.
The coup set off a long and sometimes violent struggle for power between Thaksin’s supporters and opponents. The courts, one of Thailand’s most royalist and conservative institutions, played a major role in fighting comebacks by his political machine with controversial rulings that consistently whittled away at his allies, ultimately forcing three other prime ministers loyal to him to step down.
Critics of the courts suggested Thailand came under the sway of a system known as juristocracy or judiocracy, in which the judiciary exercises political power overriding other branches of government, including elected officials.
Thailand’s decades-old official lottery has been dogged time and again by rigging and corruption scandals.
The court’s ruling Thursday appeared to claim that the lottery scheme initiated under Thaksin involved unacceptable financial risk to the government.
Thai news reports said dozens of other officials were previously tried and convicted for involvement, with some senior figures given suspended prison terms.
Story: Kaweewit Kaewjinda and Pitcha Dangprasith