‘Yellow Shirt’ founder jailed for fraud released early

In this March 27, 2006, file photo, Sondhi Limthongkul addresses demonstrators in Bangkok. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)
In this March 27, 2006, file photo, Sondhi Limthongkul addresses demonstrators in Bangkok. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

Bangkok (AP) — The flamboyant media mogul who led an ultimately successful campaign to oust Thailand’s prime minister in 2006 has been freed early from a 20-year prison sentence for financial fraud, the country’s Corrections Department announced Wednesday.

The department said Sondhi Limthongkul was released under the terms of a pardon marking HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s April coronation but that a misunderstanding of his case had delayed his freedom.

It said in a statement that the pardon was granted to Sondhi, 72, strictly for reasons of law after his situation was clarified, and had nothing to do with politics. Sondhi, along with three of his business associates, was sentenced in 2012 to 20 years in prison for filing a fraudulent financial report with forged documents, but went to prison only in 2016 after the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment.

Sondhi founded the People’s Alliance for Democracy, popularly known as the Yellow Shirts, whose demonstrations in 2006 accusing Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of corruption and abuse of power and calling for him to leave office drew popular support and led to a military coup in September that year.

The coup led to more than a decade of sometimes violent contention for power between Thaksin’s opponents and his supporters, known as the Red Shirts. The Yellow Shirts staged more aggressive protests in 2008 to seek the ouster of two successive Thaksin-backed prime ministers, occupying their offices for three months and Bangkok’s main airport for a week. Both Thaksin-backed leaders were forced from office by contentious legal rulings.

A successor group to the Yellow Shirts staged aggressive street protests in late 2013 and early 2014 to drive Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from her position as prime minister. She too was unseated by a court ruling, and her government toppled by a coup, installing a military regime that ruled until this year.

It was not immediately clear if there are any legal actions pending against Sondhi.

Sondhi and other protest leaders have faced many legal charges, mostly related to their political activities. The courts have generally been lenient with Sondhi and other opponents of Thaksin, with whom they share royalist leanings. Thaksin’s supporters, who also staged major demonstrations, have also been tied up in the courts.

Sondhi had been a crony of Thaksin when the two were prominent members of Bangkok’s business community, but turned against him after he took power in 2001. Critics alleged that Sondhi was disappointed that Thaksin as prime minister did not grant him favors.

In 2005, Sondhi began his campaign against Thaksin, drawing modest crowds at first. However, he proved to be a dynamic speaker and by leveraging his media properties was able to attract bigger crowds.

Sondhi’s activities also drew enemies. In 2009 his car was ambushed by unknown attackers with military-style assault rifles, and he was badly wounded. The incident remains surrounded by mystery.