July 25, 2006

Thai election commissioners jailed for poll abuse

By Pracha Hariraksapitak

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai court sent three election
commissioners to jail for four years on Tuesday for mishandling
April's inconclusive general election, clearing the way for a
new poll to end a long-running political crisis.

Both the Bangkok Criminal Court and the Appeals Court
denied them bail after the ruling, which came three months
after King Bhumibol Adulyadej told judges to clean up the mess
left behind by the April election, which was annulled

Their lawyer said they would appeal against the sentences.

The commissioners were accused of favoring Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra's party in the election and rebuffed
repeated calls to quit -- seen as a prerequisite for holding a
re-run acceptable to all political parties.

The jail terms, as well as the court's removal of the
commissioners' voting rights for 10 years, are likely to make
them ineligible for public office, meaning a new commission
will have to be chosen.

The government's top lawyer believed the voting rights ban
suggested they had to go immediately, a spokesman said.

"The secretary-general of the Council of State has checked
the constitution and believes that the withdrawal of the voting
rights may affect the qualifications of the three
commissioners," government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee told

Some private legal experts said the issue should be
determined in the appeals process. But others said the Supreme
Court, responsible for nominating candidates to the Election
Commission, should start the process immediately.

"Just use common sense. How could election commissioners
whose voting rights have been withdrawn run a free and fair
election and ask people to come to vote?" said Prinya
Thaewanarumitkul, a law lecturer at Thammasat University.

A Supreme Court spokesman declined to comment.

The king sprang a surprise last week by approving a new
election on October 15, saying he wanted a swift end to the
political stalemate that has paralyzed government
decision-making and caused economists to trim economic growth

Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party is
expected to win the October run-off with a reduced majority.

The whole saga started at the end last year when a former
business associate launched a public campaign accusing Thaksin
of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.

Despite massing more than 100,000 supporters on one
occasion outside Government House, the campaign to oust Thaksin
looked destined to fail until his family sold off their stake
in the family telecoms empire for a tax-free $1.9 billion.

Thaksin called the snap election to counter anger in
Bangkok at the deal. But an opposition boycott led to an
inconclusive result, and ultimately the decision to annul the
entire poll.

(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan)