Home Office bars former Thai PM from Britain

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Indy Politics

Britain has avoided a lengthy immigration appeals process and damaging diplomatic row by revoking the visa of the exiled former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, while he was out of the UK on business.

Dr Thaksin, 59, a billionaire businessman who set up the populist Thais Love Thais party, may be experiencing déjà vu because he was ousted from power in Thailand in a bloodless military coup in 2006, again while he was overseas. He subsequently returned to Bangkok, but fled to Britain again in August as he skipped bail while facing corruption charges. Last month, he was given a two-year jail sentence in absentia.

Dr Thaksin, the former owner of Manchester City Football Club, and his wife, Potjaman, who in July was sentenced to three years for tax evasion, were reportedly planning to seek asylum in Britain, claiming their prosecutions were politically motivated.

However, when the couple travelled from London to China on business, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, took the opportunity to revoke their visas under rules banning foreigners convicted of serious crimes. Her staff warned airlines not to let the Thaksins board flights to Britain.

The Home Office said it could not comment on individual case for "data protection reasons" but a source confirmed the visas were revoked, which can be done if foreign nationals have been convicted of serious crimes. Any new visa application by the Thaksins "would be considered on its merits in line with the UK's international commitments", the source said, although it is highly unlikely one would succeed.

Should the couple try to return to Britain without a valid visa – perhaps to visit their £4.5m mansion in Weybridge, Surrey, or £3m flat in South Kensington, London – they would be illegal immigrants and could be deported back to Thailand.

In an email to airlines, Andy Gray, the immigration liaison manager at the British embassy in Bangkok, said: "The UK Border Agency has revoked the UK visas held by the following Thai nationals: Thaksin Shinawatra [and] Potjaman Shinawatra. The UK visas contained in the passports of the individuals are no longer valid for travel. Airlines are advised not to carry these passengers to the UK."

There is speculation that Dr Thaksin might now seek a permanent home in China, the Philippines or the Bahamas, where he has reportedly been offered honorary citizenship. However, the Philippines foreign ministry said it would "politely" refuse any request for political refuge because of its friendly relations with Thailand.

Dr Thaksin's spokesman, Phongthep Thepkanjana, said he was "in Beijing on business" but declined to elaborate. He added that the former Thai leader had not been told of the change in his visa status. "I spoke with Thaksin's secretary and he said Thaksin still had not been notified by the British Government," he said.

A human rights lawyer, who asked not to be named, said the Home Office appeared to have taken the opportunity to rid itself of a diplomatic headache by engaging in sharp practice. He said: "If he litigates against the Government, I think he has got a difficult case. The courts would probably say that, if he was desperate, why didn't he claim asylum when he was here? Asylum is not there for you to pick and choose which country. The lesson from this is if you are thinking of claiming asylum, claim first and travel for business second."

Thailand's Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Dr Thaksin's brother-in-law, said: "The revoking of the visas is a decision by the Government of Great Britain. We cannot criticise."

Dr Thaksin bought Manchester City in July last year and sold it in September to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, of the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment, for £210m. He retained the post of honorary president but the club's board is believed to be considering stripping him of the title.