'Red Shirt' leader Jatuporn Prompan speaks at a rally (AFP Photo)
A Thai court Wednesday sentenced the leader of the opposition Red Shirt movement to two years in prison for defaming a former premier, a move analysts said was the latest attack against critics of the military regime.
The ruling comes days after the retroactive impeachment and announcement of corruption charges against ex-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose toppled government was backed by the Red Shirts before May's army coup.
The court convicted Red Shirts chairman Jatuporn Prompan on two counts of defamation against former royalist prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva during speeches he made in October 2009.
"The verdict is two years in prison without suspension," a court official told the reporter.
Jatuporn's lawyer Winyat Chatmontree confirmed the sentencing, saying his client — who was accused of defamation for holding Abhisit responsible for a crackdown against protesters in 2009 — would not be imprisoned until the conclusion of his appeal.
"The court has approved bail, after this we will submit an appeal," he said.
Anti-coup voices — including lawmakers from Yingluck's former ruling Puea Thai party, academics and students' groups — have been silenced after the army outlawed political gatherings, briefly summoned dissenters and censored the media.
The once mighty Red Shirts have gone to ground with Jatuporn one of their few public faces, back on the small screen after the junta lifted a ban on political TV channels despite his every word coming under close scrutiny by authorities.
The firebrand leader has swapped his once rabble-rousing rhetoric for cautionary language, urging followers against taking to the streets after last Friday's decision against Yingluck.
Jatuporn, a former Puea Thai MP, has faced a slew of court cases in recent years. In August 2013 he was cleared of slandering Abhisit in a separate probe.
Thailand analyst David Streckfuss said Wednesday's ruling was the latest attempt to quash any opposition to the military regime.
"It seems to be part of a larger plan by the Bangkok establishment to silence and force aside their vocal critics," he said, adding it was rare for someone to face jail time over criminal defamation, with suspended sentences more common.
Thailand's long-running political conflict broadly pits Bangkok's middle-class and royalist elites, backed by parts of the military, against rural and working-class voters loyal to Yingluck's older brother and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Parties led by or aligned to Thaksin, who lives in self-exile to avoid jail for a corruption conviction, have won every election in Thailand since 2001.
Streckfuss said the recent rulings against Yingluck and Jatuporn pointed to a "step-by-step dismantling of the Red Shirt and Pheu Thai leadership".
"They are attempting to weaken the infrastructure of pro-democracy forces ahead of when an election is eventually held," he said.
Junta chief and premier Prayut Chan-o-cha has said the army takeover was necessary to end months of political unrest that left nearly 30 people dead.
He initially said fresh polls would be held around October this year, but the appointed government's officials have since said an election will be delayed until at least early 2016.
Yingluck's impeachment by a junta-stacked parliament has seen her face an automatic five-year ban from politics. She had already been forced out of office in a controversial court ruling before the military's coup.
The same day she was impeached, prosecutors announced corruption charges that could see her face a decade in jail. AFP