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Wife of Ousted Thai Prime Minister Charged

The wife of the ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has appeared in court to face charges of tax evasion. As Ron Corben reports the hearing marks the first of several planned corruption cases against the former prime minister and his family.

Crowds of onlookers and journalists jostled for a view of the former first lady, Pojaman Shinawatra, when she arrived at a Bangkok court in a gold silk dress.

Pojaman, her brother and secretary, heard charges of tax evasion that relate to a share transfer deal in 1997 involving the family's satellite and communications company, Shin Corporation. They were then released on bail.

Tax authorities originally viewed the share transfer as a "gift" not warranting tax. But later investigations found that almost $15 million was due. Tax evasion charges carry penalties of up to 14 years in jail.

Somphob Manaragsan, a Chulalongkorn University lecturer, says this is only the beginning of legal action against the Thaksin family.

"This is the first case. There are going to be more cases following," said Somphob. "I think from now on they have to prove that. So it is just the beginning of the anti-corruption movement from the current government side."

Somphob says this is a test case for the military under General Sonthi Boonyaratglin. He led the coup in September last year that deposed Mr. Thaksin on the grounds that corruption had become endemic during his rule.

The junta set up the Assets Examination Committee in the auditor general's department. Officials there say they will bring eight cases of corruption to the courts.

Some analysts remain skeptical about the military's claim to be less corrupt than the politicians, noting this has not been borne out by history.

Somphob says the court cases are part of the politicking between the military and supporters of Mr. Thaksin.

"So that means that conflict and confrontation between the old regime and the new regime is going to take place more seriously from now on," said Somphob.

Concerns over corruption sparked mass demonstrations in January 2006 when Mr. Thaksin's family sold its stake in Shin Corp. to a Singapore investment fund for almost $1.9 billion, tax-free.

A snap election that returned Mr. Thaksin to power in April was nullified by the courts as public unrest continued. Mr. Thaksin has remained outside the country since the September coup.