Former Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was indicted for murder on Thursday in connection with a deadly military crackdown on mass opposition protests in Bangkok three years ago, prosecutors said.
The move comes as fresh political turmoil rocks the Thai capital, with protesters backed by Abhisit's opposition party seeking to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and rid the kingdom of the influence of her brother, deposed former leader Thaksin.
Some observers doubt British-born Abhisit will go to prison given his links to the Thai elite, and see the case as part of the country's political brinksmanship.
Abhisit denied the charges and was freed after posting bail of 1.8 million baht ($56 000), his lawyer Bandit Siripan said after the closed-door hearing.
“The pre-trial hearing is expected on March 24 next year,” he said.
Under Abhisit's government, more than 90 people died and nearly 1 900 were wounded in street clashes in the capital in 2010 between mostly unarmed pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” demonstrators and security forces firing live rounds.
A small group of Red Shirts shouted “Murderer!” as the Democrat Party leader arrived at court, without speaking to waiting media. There were about 10 Abhisit supporters outside the building, some holding bunches of flowers.
Thailand has seen several bouts of political turmoil since Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006, with rival protests sometimes resulting in bloody unrest.
Prosecutors have accused Abhisit and his former deputy Suthep Thaugsuban of issuing orders that resulted in murder and attempted murder by the security forces.
Oxford-educated Abhisit - who was formally charged in December - insists he is innocent and has described the accusations against him as politically motivated.
Suthep, who did not attend Thursday's hearing, also faces a murder charge but had asked the court to postpone his hearing. The former deputy premier is now spearheading the mass opposition protests against Yingluck, for which he faces an arrest warrant for insurrection.
Yingluck has called an early election - set for February 2 - to try to calm the political turmoil. But Suthep has rejected the move, demanding the government step aside in favour of an unelected “people's council”.
On Thursday, opposition protesters cut the electricity and water supplies to the government headquarters in Bangkok to try to force security officials to abandon the besieged premises.
“They have cut power and water at many points at Government House,” Lieutenant General Kamronwit Thoopkrajan, commander of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police Bureau, told AFP.
No officials, including Yingluck, were inside the compound at the time, police said.
Hundreds of protesters massed outside Yingluck's offices on Thursday, threatening to force their way into the compound if police do not abandon their positions.
At least one police officer was lightly injured after protesters used slingshots to fire small metal balls at officers, police said.
Yingluck's ruling Puea Thai Party is widely expected to win the upcoming vote, bolstered by Thaksin's enduring popularity.
He is loathed by many in the royalist elite and Bangkok middle class, but loved among the working classes and those in his rural northeastern heartland.
Parties allied to the tycoon have won every election since 2001, most recently with a landslide victory for Puea Thai in 2011.
The opposition Democrats - whose MPs resigned en masse on Sunday saying they could not achieve anything in parliament - have not won an elected majority in about two decades.
Abhisit's party says it has not yet decided whether to take part in the upcoming election.
The political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite backed by the military against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin, who lives in self-exile in Dubai.
Tensions remain high after several days of street clashes last week when police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets against rock-throwing demonstrators.
Five people have been killed and more than 200 injured in the unrest.
Turnout has fallen sharply since an estimated 140 000 people flooded the streets of Bangkok on Monday.
Several thousand demonstrators massed outside the government headquarters on Thursday. Protesters said they were confident the opposition chief would be cleared of the murder charges.
“I don't believe that Abhisit ordered the shootings,” said 42-year-old Nayanane Wanaro from southern Thailand.
“It's a good opportunity for Abhisit to defend himself in court and speak to the world,” she added.
In the 2010 protests, the Red Shirts were demanding immediate elections, saying Abhisit's government took office undemocratically in 2008 through a parliamentary vote after a court stripped Thaksin's allies of power.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators occupied parts of central Bangkok for weeks before the army ended the standoff.
In December 2012 the trial began of 24 Red Shirt leaders on terrorism charges related to their roles in the violence. The proceedings are expected to drag on for years, with counsel on both sides calling several hundred witness. - Sapa-AFP