FORMER Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — REUTERS

INFLUENTIAL former Thai Prime Minister (PM) Thaksin Shinawatra, a powerful backer of the ruling government, was granted bail by a court on Tuesday, avoiding pre-trial detention for allegedly insulting the monarchy in a 2015 interview.

The billionaire sought bail from the Criminal Court of Thailand soon after the Attorney-General had formally charged him under Thailand’s lese-majeste law, which carries a maximum jail sentence of up to 15 years for each perceived royal insult.

Mr. Thaksin denies the charges against him.

“The court has released Thaksin on bail of 500,000 baht ($13,600) under the condition that he is prohibited from leaving the country unless granted permission,” a court statement said.

A former policeman who went into the telecoms business and then entered politics, Mr. Thaksin returned to Thailand last year after 15 years in self-imposed exile following his ouster from power by a military coup. Mr. Thaksin’s is the first of four high-profile cases involving key political players that are before the courts on Tuesday, in the latest legal wrangling that could see Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy plunged into a new period of uncertainty.

The cases involve some of Thailand’s most powerful politicians, including its current prime minister, and could deepen a decades-old rift between the conservative-royalist establishment and its opponents, such as the populist ruling Pheu Thai party and the opposition Move Forward party.

The Constitutional Court will conduct a hearing in a case lodged by a group of senators that could potentially see Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin dismissed from office for breaching the law in appointing a lawyer with a conviction record to his cabinet. 

The same court will also hear a case seeking to disband the popular opposition Move Forward Party for their campaign to amend the royal insult law, following a complaint by the Election Commission.

The court is expected to announce the next hearing or verdict date for cases involving Srettha and Move Forward on Tuesday.

The Constitutional Court will also rule whether the ongoing selection process for a new upper house, which started earlier this month and is scheduled to conclude in early July, is lawful.

If the court cancels or delays the process, it would temporarily extend the term of military-appointed senators who have a played crucial role in the formation of the previous government.

“The political parties and representatives that voters have chosen are being systematically and repeatedly stymied,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters.

A single petition can bring down a sitting, elected government or oust a prime minister, he said, outlining the power of the country’s courts.

“There’s a judicial assertiveness that has been damaging to Thailand, subverting popular will and popular mandates.”

Such tensions have previously triggered violent street protests, dissolutions of political parties, airport closures and military coups that have hamstrung the economy. — Reuters