Thaksin's brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat to face Thai court over 2008 crackdown

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's top court has ordered another key member of the embattled Shinawatra family to face trial, an official said Wednesday, as the wealthy but wildly divisive clan become further snared in legal challenges.

Somchai Wongsawat - brother-in-law of deposed premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra - must appear before the Supreme Court on May 11 to enter a plea on criminal charges of abuse of power over a crackdown on a 2008 protest, a court official told AFP.

He was prime minister at the time, but lasted just 80 days before a court removed him from office.

Somchai has been tipped for a possible comeback as leader of the battered Shinawatra-aligned Puea Thai party, which was swept aside by a coup last May shortly after Yingluck was toppled by another court decision.

Two people died and scores were injured in October 2008 when police used tear gas to clear anti-Shinawatra 'Yellow Shirt' protesters who had blockaded Government House to prevent Somchai entering.

Somchai - who was acting prime minister at the time after another Shinawatra affiliate was dumped by the courts - is facing trial along with his then deputy and two police chiefs.

"The defendants have to say why they carried out the crackdown," said Thitipong Chompunud of the Supreme Court criminal division.

The accusation is that "the four of them abused their power and the crackdown was not legal," Thitipong added.

The case has been pushed by the powerful National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), which critics say has spearheaded the ruling junta's pursuit of its political enemies since they took power.

The move against Somchai comes despite the NACC so far declining to bring similar charges against his successor, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power without winning a popular mandate.

Abhisit was in power in 2010 when Thailand's military launched a crackdown on 'Red Shirt' protesters loyal to the Thaksin family that killed more than 90, left hundreds wounded and parts of central Bangkok ablaze.

Shinawatra supporters accuse Thailand's interventionist courts of being in cahoots with the Bangkok elite and its military backers, who loathe Thaksin and accuse him of souring the nation with money politics.

Thaksin has been in self-exile since 2008 to avoid being jailed for graft.

Yingluck was banned from politics last month and now faces criminal charges over a bungled rice subsidy scheme that benefited the family's rural electoral base.

Thailand's decade-long political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite - backed by parts of the military and judiciary - against urban working-class voters and farmers from the country's north, many of whom are part of the 'Red Shirt' movement.

Parties led by, or aligned with, the Shinawatras have won every election in Thailand since 2001, including in 2011 when Yingluck was swept to power as the country's first female leader on a wave of public support.