Thailand's government has put forward proposals for an amnesty that seems designed to allow self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra to return home without serving a sentence for abuse of power, Thai media reported on Wednesday.
The proposed amnesty was agreed at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, media said, but no mention was made of it in a statement issued by the government and ministers gave no explanation for the omission.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was not present at the meeting and all officials were asked to leave the room when the issue was deliberated, the Bangkok Post daily said, citing sources at Government House, the prime minister's office.
Yingluck is Thaksin's sister and is widely seen as his proxy at the head of his ruling Puea Thai Party. She sidestepped questions about the proposed amnesty, saying only that the government would act within the law.
The cabinet proposals, which would be sent to King Bhumibol Adulyadej to be endorsed for an amnesty around his birthday on December 5, would cover people over 60 years of age sentenced to under three years in prison, the Post said.
Thaksin, 62, was convicted of abuse of power in 2008 and fled before a two-year sentence was handed down. He never spent time in jail and lives in Dubai, travelling frequently on passports granted by Montenegro and Nicaragua following the cancellation of his Thai passports.
Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon-turned-populist politician, was ousted by the military in a coup in 2006. He remains a divisive figure in Thai politics and remains the figurehead of the powerful red shirts protest movement.
Thaksin on Wednesday played down talk of his possible homecoming and said cabinet was discussing a pardon that took place every year, rather than a special amnesty.
Asked by Reuters if he thought he would be included, he said: I don't know. I don't think so. No one knows, because it was a confidential meeting.
It's at the full discretion of his majesty (the king), he said in Dubai.
The Post said Yingluck was absent from the cabinet meeting apparently because transport problems caused her to spend Monday night in a flood-hit province, although it quoted a military source as saying she could have returned by helicopter.
Yingluck had just three months of political experience before leading Puea Thai to an election landslide on July 3 with a promise to revive Thaksin's populist policies. From the moment she took office in August, critics said she had been installed by Thaksin to help bring him home a free man.
Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung refused to confirm the report about an amnesty that could include Thaksin.
I cannot say anything now because it was a confidential meeting but I confirm that the government will not break the law, he told reporters.
Some eligibility criteria change from one amnesty to another, but those convicted of corruption, which would apply to Thaksin, or drug offences are normally not freed. The Post said the draft amnesty this time did not exclude corruption.
Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, a former Justice Minister of the previous Democrat-let government, said amnesties should only apply to those who actually served time behind bars.
If we cut this issue off, it could mean that every wrongdoer, including a fugitive, can be whitewashed, Pirapan told Reuters. It would benefit those fugitives who fled charges without going to jail, which is not right.
The possibility of Thaksin having his criminal record expunged will anger many Thais, particularly the urban middle classes and elites, who see him as a corrupt crony capitalist but are unable to keep him out of the political scene due to the huge electoral support for his parties over the past decade.
An anti-Thaksin group, Network of Citizen Volunteers Protection the Land, issued a statement on Wednesday saying it would challenge any such amnesty and launch a petition.
But with the government's control of parliament and the bureaucracy and its support among the red shirts, opposition voices may not be loud enough to derail any amnesty.
From the government's perspective, now is the right timing for this move, said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political scientist at Bangkok's Thammasat University.
There is still strong discontent about Thaksin, but already the government has secured the upper hand, in all areas. It was elected with the overwhelming support of the public and its opponents are all in a weak position now.
(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat in Bangkok and Firouz Sedarat in Dubai; Additional reporting by Jutarat Skulpichetrat and Paul Eckert in Bangkok; Writing by Alan Raybould and Martin Petty; Editing by Andrew Roche)