Thai protest leader denies murder charge over 'Red Shirt' crackdown

Thai protest leader denies murder charge over 'Red Shirt' crackdown

BANGKOK - The firebrand leader of months-long street protests which preceded Thailand's latest coup appeared in court Monday to deny a murder charge over a bloody crackdown on opposition "Red Shirt" supporters four years ago.

Suthep Thaugsuban was deputy prime minister of the then ruling Democrat Party during the 2010 crackdown, which left more than 90 people dead and hundreds more wounded in the heart of Bangkok.

"There were deaths and injuries caused by live bullets during the crackdown ordered by the defendant," a judge, whose name was withheld by the criminal court, said reading out the charge.

"I deny it," Suthep said, sporting a shaven head and the orange robes of a Buddhist monk after a stint in the clergy earlier this month. Many Thai men enter monkhood at some time during their lives in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.

Suthep has kept a relatively low profile since the Thai junta banned political activities.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, premier during the crackdown, appeared alongside his former deputy in court but remained silent. He has already denied a murder charge.

The judge ordered the pair to return on August 28 for the next hearing in their joint trial.

Under Abhisit's government, scores of protesters died in street clashes in the capital in 2010 between mostly unarmed Red Shirt demonstrators and security forces firing live rounds.

The Red Shirts are loyal to self-exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra who was toppled in a previous coup in 2006.

Thaksin sits at the epicentre of Thailand's bitter political divide, which roughly pits his rural poor supporters in the northern portion of the country against royalist southerners and the Bangkok-elite - backed by sections of the military and judiciary.

Shinawatra-led or aligned parties have won every election since 2001 but have been thwarted by two army coups and the removal of three premiers by court decisions.

Suthep marshalled seven months of protests against the Thaksin-allied former government, paving the way for the May 22 coup.

The army said it was forced to grab power to avert widespread violence after gun and grenade attacks linked to the protests left nearly 30 people dead, mostly in Bangkok.

The junta has since suspended democracy, muzzled dissent and imposed sweeping curbs on freedom of expression as it bids to re-write the constitution and enact political reforms before new elections in October next year.

Suthep saw his calls to uproot "Thaksin's regime" reflected in the junta's interim constitution published last week, which will establish a junta-picked council to recommend reforms before a permanent charter is crafted.

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