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Thai leaders of “Red Shirt” opposition protests that rocked Bangkok in 2010 are set to stand trial on Thursday for terrorism, in a case that risks inflaming the kingdom's political tensions.
The 24 accused, who include five current lawmakers, could in theory face the death penalty for their roles in the demonstrations, which at their height drew around 100 000 people, mostly supporters of ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
About 90 people were killed and nearly 1 900 were wounded in a series of street clashes between demonstrators and security forces, which culminated in a bloody military crackdown. Two foreign journalists were among those killed.
The Reds were demanding immediate elections, accusing the previous government of being undemocratic because it took office in 2008 through a parliamentary vote, after a court stripped Thaksin's allies of power.
The Red Shirt leaders, most of whom surrendered to police after the government sent in armoured vehicles and troops firing live rounds, say they are confident they can prove their innocence.
“In many countries, those in power will find any accusations to support their use of force against the people,” said top Red Shirt Nattawut Saikuar, now deputy commerce minister in Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's cabinet.
He denied the protest leaders incited their followers to cause violence.
“I'm certain that the protesters did not need any speeches to provoke them. They saw more and more people injured and dying. The situation was already very heated,” Nattawut told AFP in an interview.
After the May crackdown, protest leaders asked their supporters to disperse, but authorities accused hardcore demonstrators of setting fire to dozens of buildings, including a shopping mall and the stock exchange.
The leaders pleaded not guilty in August 2010 to terrorism charges. Their trial is expected to last months or even years because hearings can only be held when parliament is not in session as sitting lawmakers have immunity.
No government or military officials who oversaw the riots have been charged over the deaths, prompting accusations by the Red Shirts of double standards.
Their hero Thaksin, adored by many poor Thais for his populist policies while in power, was toppled by royalist generals in a 2006 coup that unleashed years of street protests by the Reds and the rival royalist Yellow Shirts.
The bloody 2010 crackdown followed weeks of rallies by the Red Shirts which brought parts of central Bangkok to a standstill.
Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who oversaw the military crackdown, insisted the protest leaders should accept responsibility and said his government had no choice but to take tough action.
“It was the job of the government of that day to also restore order,” he told AFP ahead of the trial.
Rights campaigners, however, said both the protesters and the authorities of the time should be held accountable.
“The military, the security forces were responsible for larger casualties but both sides were clearly responsible,” said Sunai Pasuk, a Thai researcher with New York-based Human Right Watch.
Elections in 2011 brought Thaksin's Red Shirt-backed Puea Thai party to power and swept his sister Yingluck into office.
A proposed amnesty might allow Thaksin back from self-imposed exile, to the dismay of his opponents who staged their own anti-government protests in Bangkok on Saturday, sparking clashes with the police.
Activists fear an amnesty would let perpetrators of the unrest on both sides off the hook.
“It may help political leaders and military leaders to co-exist and the survival of the government is guaranteed but this is not justice for victims of violence,” said Sunai. - Sapa-AFP