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Corruption Trial of Former Thai Prime Minister Begins

Court proceedings against former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have begun, the first since he was ousted in a military coup in 2006. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, several other corruption investigations against the former leader, his family and associates could go to court in the coming months.

Lawyers represented Thaksin Shinawatra and his wife, Potjaman, in court in the proceedings at the Supreme Court.

They face charges of abuse of power over a land purchase while Mr. Thaksin was prime minister. He is accused of using his influence to enable his wife to buy five hectares through a government agency.

The trial is expected to be done by early September.

The case has been linked to a new scandal: Three members of the original defense team were arrested and jailed for contempt of court, after being charged with trying to bribe court officials with about $62,000 packed in a lunch box.

The opposition Democrat Party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, says despite reported attempts to undermine the judicial process he remains confident of the court's neutrality.

"We know there are clear moves on the part of the government to try to somehow stop those cases - but we still have a strong belief in the neutrality of the courts," said Abhisit. "We were just concerned that before those cases get to the courts they may somehow get stopped by interference from the government. We do not want that to happen."

Other cases against Mr. Thaksin include allegations of irregular loans from a state-owned bank, a special lottery project, and a $120 million loan by Thailand's Export-Import Bank to Burma's military government.

Mr. Thaksin's wife also faces a court ruling later this month over charges of tax evasion involving the transfer of shares associated with the former family company, the Shin Corporation.

The former prime minister sold the company in 2006 to a Singapore investment fund, and his family managed to avoid paying taxes on their gain of nearly $2 billion.

The sale contributed to rising opposition to Mr. Thaksin and sparked massive protests against him. He was overthrown in the military coup in September 2006.

The military government set up a special committee to investigate corruption allegations against Mr. Thaksin and members of his government. The committee finalized its work at the end of June, but other cases are being investigated by the National Counter Corruption Commission.

The current government, elected last December, is seen as being closely allied with Mr. Thaksin. Many opposition politicians and their supporters are calling for the government to resign over various issues, including what some critics say are attempts to end the corruption investigations. For weeks, several-thousand people have peacefully protested around the main government buildings in Bangkok.