Reporting from Bangkok, Thailand, and New Delhi — In a long-awaited decision, Thailand's Supreme Court ruled Friday that fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had abused his power for personal gain and should be stripped of $1.4 billion of his frozen $2.3-billion fortune.
The decision appeared designed to strike a balance between competing camps by leaving some of his fortune untouched, but it was unlikely to end the nation's four-year political crisis.
A force of 500 riot police officers guarded the courthouse as the justices' decision was read out over 7 1/2 hours, but the expected demonstrations didn't materialize.
Thaksin supporters said their struggle was greater than a single court decision and pledged to launch a "million-man" march March 12 that would show their muscle by blocking traffic and government buildings. Their goal: to topple the government, force new elections and end "rule of the aristocrats."
"Accepting death is better than letting the elites rule us," said Thonglor Manglat, a retiree and Thaksin supporter, outside the Supreme Court before the verdict was announced. "Even if the soldiers come out and shoot at us next month, we won't run in fear."
Although pro-Thaksin leaders have called for nonviolent disobedience, rallies have turned violent, including an assault on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's motorcade last April and rioting at a summit of world leaders a few weeks later.
And Thaksin opponents seized the capital's two airports for a week in 2008.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, spokesman for Abhisit, welcomed peaceful protesters but said security forces would get tough with rioters.
"In every society, there are groups that believe in violence," he said. "We intend to separate them out" from peaceful protesters.
Thaksin, 60, who lost power in a 2006 coup, denied the charges from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he's in self-imposed exile.
"I've been the victim of injustice," he told supporters via the Internet after the verdict was read. "We don't want secret powers pushing all the buttons like it's always been."
Thaksin is hardly headed for the poorhouse. The Supreme Court ruled that he could keep about $900 million of the frozen wealth because "some of it was made before Thaksin became prime minister." He operates foreign businesses and was quoted in The Times of London in November saying he still had $100 million outside Thailand.
Prosecutors accused Thaksin and his former wife, Potjaman na Pombejra, of hiding ownership of shares in family business Shin Corp. during his five years in office, and of abusing his power by crafting policies that benefited the company.
The nexus of power and money is hardly unknown in Thailand, however. Corruption watchdog Transparency International ranked it 84th among 180 countries in its 2009 perception index.
Thaksin, who faces a two-year jail term from an earlier conviction for selling land to his wife at below-market prices, was convicted Friday in four of the five "policy corruption" cases against him.
One of those involved approving a $127-million low-interest government loan to Myanmar in 2004, with the understanding that the neighboring country would buy satellite services from Shin.
Winn is a special correspondent.