BANGKOK — A court in Thailand on Tuesday sentenced one of the kingdom's most controversial political figures, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, to 20 years in prison for corporate fraud.
Sondhi is the founder of the royalist "Yellow Shirt" protest movement, which has played a major role in Thailand's colour-coded political conflict and helped to topple fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.
The Criminal Court in Bangkok convicted Sondhi of violating the Securities and Exchange Act in a case dating back to the mid-1990s, and gave him the maximum sentence possible, a court official told AFP.
The 64-year-old tycoon is appealing the verdict and released on bail of 10 million baht ($330,000), his lawyer Suwat Apaipak told AFP.
He was accused by Thailand's Securities and Exchange Commission of falsifying documents used as collateral for a loan of almost 1.1 billion baht ($36 million) for his ASTV/Manager media empire.
Mass protests by the Yellows, formally known as the People's Alliance for Democracy, helped trigger the 2006 coup by royalist generals who ousted Thaksin, then seen as Sondhi's arch-enemy.
Thaksin now lives in self-imposed exile overseas to avoid a jail term imposed in his absence for corruption, but his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra is the current prime minister.
In 2010 Sondhi was convicted of defaming Thaksin and handed a six-month suspended jail sentence.
The Yellows claim allegiance to the throne and are backed by the Bangkok-based elite, although their influence has waned since 2008 when they seized Bangkok's airports and stranded hundreds of thousands of tourists.
Sondhi was among dozens of Yellow Shirt supporters charged in 2010 with terrorism offences over the airport occupation. That case has yet to go to court.
He is also facing trial for insulting the monarchy -- a serious charge in the kingdom -- because he quoted from the speech of a hardcore Red Shirt.
In 2009 Sondhi survived an assassination attempt but was wounded in the head when gunmen wielding assault rifles opened fire on his car at a petrol station.
Thailand has seen a series of rival street protests in recent years by the Yellows and the mainly poor and working-class Red Shirts, who mostly support Thaksin.
Two months of mass anti-government protests by the Red Shirts in Bangkok in 2010 descended into the kingdom's worst political violence in decades, with more than 90 people killed in a military crackdown.
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