Thailand’s former PM Thaksin Shinawatra has been jailed upon returning to the country after 15 years in exile.
But many believe he has struck a deal that will keep him from serving more than a short period in prison.
He arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday morning in a private jet, hours before his Pheu Thai party’s candidate Srettha Thavisin was voted the next Thai PM.
This cements Pheu Thai’s coalition with its former military rivals who deposed the party in 2014 in a coup.
Mr Thaksin, Thailand’s most successful elected leader, has long been feared by conservative royalists, who have backed military coups and contentious court cases to weaken him. He went into self-imposed exile in 2009 after being deposed by a coup two years earlier.
While he made no secret of his yearning to be back in Thailand, what kept him away so long was the various criminal cases hanging over him. But now the brash, politically ambitious telecoms tycoon is back – and was almost immediately sentenced to eight years’ jail on criminal convictions he says are politically motivated.
He arrived to cheers from hundreds of loyal “red shirt” supporters who had gathered overnight to see him, but he never greeted most of them.
Samniang Kongpolparn, 63, was among those who had travelled from Surin province in the northeast, the stronghold of Mr Thaksin’s party in past decades.
“He’s the best prime minister we’ve ever had. Even though I won’t get to see him today, I still wanted to come to show him support,” she said. “I’m ok with them reconciling with the pro-military government, or else we’re stuck with the senators. We don’t want that.”
Flanked by his two daughters and son, Mr Thaksin emerged briefly from the airport terminal and paid his respects to a portrait of the king and queen. The 74-year-old was then taken to the Supreme Court where he was sentenced and then to Bangkok Remand Prison.
It has been speculated that Thaksin will seek a royal pardon, and prison authorities on Tuesday said he would be able to submit a petition from jail immediately. The process can take one to two months.
Prison authorities there say he will be kept in a wing with specific medical equipment, given his advanced age. He will also immediately undergo a 10-day quarantine – the first five days of which he will be confined to his room, authorities said.