Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thai power broker gets prison on corruption charge

International Herald Tribune
Monday, August 18, 2008

BANGKOK, Thailand: A former Cabinet minister who was once an influential power broker in Thai politics was sentenced in absentia Monday to 10 years in prison for corruption.

The Supreme Court found Wattana Asavahame guilty Monday in connection with the construction of a 23 billion baht (US$680 million) wastewater treatment plant at Klong Dan, in Wattana's home province of Samut Prakarn, just east of Bangkok.

Wattana in the 1980s and 90's had been one of Thailand's so-called "godfathers," political bosses using money and influence to deliver elections to their chosen parties.

Wattana, a former deputy interior minister who last year became chairman of the Puea Pandin Party — a junior member of the six-party coalition government — was believed to have fled to Cambodia after failing to appear for a previous court hearing.

The court ordered police to apprehend him.

The conviction of Wattana, whose declining power was exposed when he lost a 2001 bid for a parliamentary seat, is expected to have little direct effect on current politics.

But his sentencing in absentia is a fresh sign that Thai courts, once tame and unlikely to convict influential figures, are willing to flex their muscle.

The most notable cases involve former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and members of his family, who face several corruption-related charges.

Thaksin and his wife Pojaman last week failed to make a schedule appearance before the same court that convicted Wattana. They instead jumped bail to return to exile in England, saying they could not expect a fair trial in Thailand.

Wattana was never previously convicted of any major crime, but allegedly had links to several illicit activities, including oil smuggling. The U.S. government at one point denied him a visa because of suspicions that he was involved in drug smuggling.

The Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions found Wattana guilty of abuse of power in connection with the 1992-93 purchase of land at the waste water site that was resold to the government project at highly inflated prices.

The project was first approved by the Cabinet in 1993 and launched two year later. It was expanded in 1997, but halted in 2003 — when it was 95 percent completed — because of the corruption allegations. It is still not operating while the government considers whether it is environmentally sound.

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