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Thailand's Red Shirt leaders face death penalty over mass protests


More than 20 Red Shirt leaders are due to go on trial in Thailand today accused of terrorism over violence in 2010 that left up to 90 people dead.

The accused, several of whom are current parliamentarians, could in theory face the death penalty if convicted. In a move that is likely to reignite political tensions in the country, 24 members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) will face allegations that they incited supporters to acts of violence.

The claims date from the spring of 2010, when up to 100,000 supporters took over the centre of Bangkok to demand that the government of the then Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, stand down. In clashes involving the demonstrators and armed forces, at least 89 people were killed, the vast majority of them Red Shirts.

In the aftermath, Red Shirt leaders were detained and charged with terrorism, even though no effort was made to charge any members of the armed forces involved in the killings. The Red Shirt leaders deny the charges. The trial is expected to take months or even years, Agence France-Presse reported, because hearings can be held only when parliament is not in session, as sitting lawmakers have immunity.

The proceedings come at a sensitive time in Thai politics. The Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, yesterday survived a no confidence vote in the parliament, while at the weekend police fired tear gas to disperse protests by royalist Yellow Shirts.

Ms Yingluck, the sister of the ousted former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, has enjoyed a relatively stable time since she secured an election victory in the summer of 2010. Cautious about triggering fresh protests, her government has avoided tackling many sensitive issues, including the issuing of an amnesty that would allow her brother and others to return to the country from self-imposed exile.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Red Shirt academic who fled to Britain, said he believed Ms Yingluck's government had reached an agreement with the army and was "not prepared to go after anyone from the army for the killing of demonstrators". Many of the thousands who poured into the centre of Bangkok in the spring of 2010 were supporters of Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006. He has spent most of his time since then in Dubai, having been convicted in his absence of corruption. He claims the charges were politically motivated.

Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for both the UDD and Mr Thaksin, has sought to have the International Criminal Court investigate the 2010 violence. He claims that more than 80 people were killed by members of the Royal Thai Army. He said last night: "It's ludicrous that the army went on the rampage and yet there has been no thought of bringing them to justice."

One of the most notorious incidents was at the Wat Pathum temple, where at least six people were shot dead as they sought refuge. Photographs showed soldiers on railway tracks above the temple aiming their guns.