BANGKOK - Thailand's top court on Friday seized $1.4 billion (919 million pound) of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's family assets for abuse of his power, far less than expected, in a ruling that could appease some anti-government forces.
The nine-judge Supreme Court said Thaksin had concealed ownership of shares in his family telecommunications conglomerate Shin Corp during five years in office and tailored government policies to benefit the company.
But in what many saw as a compromise aimed at preventing a violent reaction, the court returned $900 million in frozen assets to Thaksin, a former telecoms mogul who won two elections in landslides before he was ousted in a 2006 coup.
Thaksin, 60, was convicted of graft while living in self-imposed exile mostly in Dubai -- a crime his supporters believe was an attempt by Bangkok's elite to keep him at bay and stifle democracy in Thailand.
Supporters say he revolutionised Thai politics with pro-business reforms and populist policies aimed at eradicating poverty. Critics accuse him of authoritarianism, crony capitalism and of undermining the monarchy.
The big question here is: 'is this a compromise, is this some kind of signal to Thaksin?', asked Roberto Herrera-Lim, an analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
This might be Thailand's elites putting a political offer on the table for Thaksin, because they can't be seen to negotiate with him.
The ruling might take some heat off a polarising political crisis in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy, easing fears of a violent backlash by Thaksin's red-shirted supporters, but it is unlikely to end the impasse or stop frequent mass protests.
Uncertainty over how the court would rule had subdued Thailand's financial markets in recent weeks. Stock brokers cautiously welcomed the decision as a way to avert an imminent showdown between the government and Thaksin's supporters.
The verdict should be positive for the market when it opens next week. The ruling turned out to be a compromise, nothing really extreme, said Patareeya Benjapolchai, president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand.
Although they seized only part of his assets, the judges said Thaksin had abused his power in all five major cases against him, using the government's telecoms and satellite policies to benefit Shin Corp.
Thaksin said he was not surprised by the verdict.
The Thai law is like an assumption. It severely fails to meet international standards, he said via video link to about 800 supporters at the headquarters of the Puea Thai party he backs. Some cried or sobbed quietly; others shouted in anger.
But Thaksin's rhetoric was far from compromising.
Keep on fighting until we achieve democracy, fight peacefully, he said, drawing loud cheers.
The red shirt movement, whose demonstrations last year sparked Thailand's worst street violence in 17 years, plans a mass rally in Bangkok on March 14 but said it would not protest on Friday, whatever the verdict.
Some analysts say a court verdict unfavourable to Thaksin, could have added weight to allegations he was the victim of a political vendetta and spark an angry response from supporters.
The final verdict was reached after more than seven hours and came after the close of Thailand's stock market, which reopens on Tuesday after a long weekend holiday, allowing investors to weigh up the outcome.
Security was tight after the verdict at Bangkok's Supreme Court on what was called Judgement Day, with cellphone signals jammed to prevent remote-detonated bombings. Judges were ferried to the courthouse, some from safe houses, in bullet-proof cars.
Talk of a violent confrontation seems to have been overstated, added Eurasia's Herrera-Lim.
But the red elements will still try to put pressure on the government. They have legitimate grievances and the problems are still unresolved
(Additional reporting by Vithoon Amorn and Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul; Editing by Jason Szep)