BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai court handed down prison terms on Thursday to 79 members of the nationalist, pro-establishment “yellow shirt” movement for the violent invasion of a state television station two years ago.
The convictions were the first against members of the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), best known for its occupation of Bangkok’s airports and attempts to bring down governments led or backed by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
The verdict may help lower the temperature in Thailand’s political crisis, as Thaksin’s “red shirt” supporters claim the PAD has escaped punishment in the past because of the tacit support of the establishment elite and the current government.
Bangkok Criminal Court sentenced the PAD members to between one and two-and-a-half years in prison for offences ranging from illegal assembly and armed assault to trespass and damage to property. Six minors were put on probation.
Armed with guns, swords, knives, axes and metal rods, they had broken into the state-owned National Broadcasting Services of Thailand (NBT) on August 26, 2008. Several employees were held at knifepoint and ordered not to broadcast news.
It was one of a series of incidents orchestrated by the PAD in an attempt to remove the prime minister at the time, Samak Sundaravej, an ally of Thaksin, who had been ousted in a coup in 2006 and now lives in exile to avoid a jail term for corruption.
The protests culminated in a three-month seizure of Samak’s offices and a week-long siege of Bangkok’s two airports, which only ended when a court dissolved the pro-Thaksin ruling party.
That led in December 2008 to establishment-backed Abhisit Vejjajiva becoming prime minister after a parliamentary vote.
The yellow shirts, whose supporters come largely from the middle and upper classes, were an important support base for Abhisit, although they have become increasingly critical and have formed their own political party to contest the next election.
The verdict did not implicate any yellow shirt leaders, only activists who acted as guards at their various rallies and who referred to themselves as “Srivichai Warriors,” historical fighters in an old Thai kingdom.
“We respect the verdict, but personally I think it’s quite harsh. The situation was tense and people were angry NBT was broadcasting biased news,” said Suriyasai Katasilia, a PAD spokesman.
Cases against the yellow shirt leaders for ordering blockades of Government House and the airports have been delayed several times and no one has yet been prosecuted or put on trial.
The lack of progress in these cases has angered the “red shirts,” many of whose leaders have been detained since May on terrorism charges after bloody political protests in April and May in which 91 people died.
Editing by Martin Petty and Alan Raybould