Thai 'yellow shirt' leaders sentenced for 2008 protest

BANGKOK (AFP) - A Thai court handed six 'Yellow Shirt' leaders two-year jail terms on Thursday for a 2008 protest which saw the prime minister's office stormed and occupied by demonstrators.

The ruling is the latest in a series of court cases targeting leaders on both sides of Thailand's febrile political divide, which has seen nearly a decade of disruptive and often deadly protests in Bangkok.

The Yellow Shirts - officially known as People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - were a potent political force throughout much of the last decade with their 2006 protests helping to spur a military coup that toppled the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra.

The most prominent of the six sentenced for storming Government House was controversial media moghul and Yellow Shirt founder Sondhi Limthongkul.

All received bail pending an appeal but were banned from travelling overseas.

In 2008 the Yellow Shirts brought much of Bangkok to a standstill when protesters blockaded key government offices and the city's airports in an eventually successful bid to remove a Thaksin ally, Somchai Wongsuwat, from the office of prime minister.

"Protesters scaled the fence at Government House, cut chains and pushed back the iron barrier and occupied the grounds," the verdict said, adding the six on trial led the move.

The court said it had dismissed the defence's argument that protesters were unarmed and added that "the storming of Goverment House affected the rights of others."

Sondhi and dozens of other Yellow Shirts also face terrorism charges over the occupation of Bangkok's main airports in 2008, which stranded thousands of tourists.

The charismatic tycoon has faced a slew of convictions and other legal challenges, many connected to his prominent role in Thailand's spin-dryer politics.

The success of the yellows and their royalist supporters among the establishment, prompted the emergence of the rival 'Red Shirt' street movement supporting Thaksin - who has remained at the heart of Thai politics despite going into self-exile in 2008.

Both yellow shirt leaders and their opponents in the Shinawatra camp have faced a slew of lengthy court proceedings both before and after the junta took over last May.

The influence of the Yellow Shirts waned dramatically after 2008 although their movement was ideologically aligned with the recent anti-Shinawatra rallies, which again saw Government House occupied.

Those protests resulted in Thaksin's sister, Yingluck, being booted from office by a court and a military coup a few weeks later.

Leaders of the latest protests are yet to face legal action.