Thai protest chief gets prison for financial crime

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BANGKOK (AP) — A Thai protest leader whose movement helped topple three prime ministers was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison for falsifying financial documents aimed at securing a $32 million government bank loan for his media empire.

Sondhi Limthongkul faces separate charges in connection with the aggressive protests of his People's Alliance for Democracy, or Yellow Shirts, who in 2008 occupied the prime minister's offices for three months and Bangkok's two airports for a week. The group is still active, though less influential.

The 64-year-old Sondhi pleaded guilty to crimes involving documents he submitted for his Manager Media Group to secure a 1 billion baht loan in 1997 from the state Krung Thai Bank.

He was sentenced to five years each on 17 counts, but the 85-year term was halved because he pleaded guilty. The final sentence was capped at 20 years because it is the maximum allowable on the charge.

He was later released on 10 million baht ($328,000) bail pending appeal of his sentence.

The alliance recently said it opposes efforts by the government, led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, to change the constitution. It alleges that changes would benefit Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is in self-imposed exile to avoid serving a jail term on a corruption conviction.

Sondhi founded his movement in 2005 to topple Thaksin, alleging he was corrupt and disrespectful to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A skilled speaker and canny organizer, Sondhi staged protests that eased the way for a 2006 army coup that deposed Thaksin.

Its subsequent protests in 2008 added to pressure that saw two pro-Thaksin prime ministers forced from office by court rulings. But the increasingly aggressive protests by the Yellow Shirts and their ideological rival Red Shirts further polarized Thai society.

Sondhi and Thaksin were among the maverick businessmen who built empires during Thailand's boom years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when loose regulation fostered speculation in the stock and property markets.

Though his media holdings, notably the business daily Phujadkarn, or Manager, were the core of his group, Sondhi diversified into other areas including hotels and a telecommunications satellite, only to see much of his business collapse during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

He rebuilt his media wing and was an enthusiastic supporter of Thaksin — a former business partner — when he became prime minister in 2001.

But the two men, both notorious for their strong egos, fell out. The Thai press speculated that Sondhi was unhappy that Thaksin did not reappoint a friend of the Manager group as president of the Krung Thai Bank.

As his involvement in politics deepened, Sondhi expanded his targets to include members of the Thai establishment and military. He also earned enemies, and was shot in the head in an apparent assassination attempt in 2009 by parties unknown.

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