KUALA LUMPUR - A Thai court Wednesday convicted opposition party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of holding shares in a media company while running for office, an election law breach that disqualifies the rising star of the country's pro-democracy movement from Parliament.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the lawmaker and Future Forward party leader had failed to offload his shares in V-Luck Media before registering to run in the general election Thailand held on March 24, its first poll after five years of military rule.
Thanathorn denies any wrongdoing and has called the case politically motivated, engineered by the pro-military government that clawed its way to power after a tainted and inconclusive election.
Following today's verdict, Future Forward spokeswoman Pannika Wanich dismissed speculation the ruling put the party itself at risk.
"It doesn't affect the party or his political work because Thanathorn stays as party leader and as [our] prime ministerial candidate, so the party's work continues within the Parliament and outside the Parliament," she told VOA.
Pannika would not comment on whether justice was served, however, for fear of landing the party in more legal trouble.
"According to the law I cannot comment on the verdict, but I think ... everyone in Thailand, after they listen to the court's reasoning, they can judge [for] themselves whether there is justice or not in the case," she said.
Thanathorn also could face up to 10 years in jail and a 20-year ban from politics if the Election Commission now forwards the case to a criminal court.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), a group of current and former lawmakers from across Southeast Asia, condemned the verdict in a statement.
"Today's ruling is another indication that despite the holding of elections this year, Thai authorities are not ready for an open and free democracy," Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker and APHR chairman, was quoted saying.
"This case must be looked at in a wider context whereby opposition MPs and parties, and specifically the Future Forward party, have been singled out by Thailand's so-called independent institutions. All signs point to a coordinated attempt to silence a party that has threatened the status quo in its pursuit of constitutional reform," he added.
Future Forward burst onto the political scene with the March election, finishing a strong third in the popular vote. By pushing a progressive platform of LGBT rights, ending conscription, slashing defense spending and snipping the military's political privileges out of the Constitution, it captured a tidy share of the youth vote, much of it in the capital Bangkok.
The party also has challenged the power-grab of Thailand's new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, in a country where the monarchy is legally beyond reproach, protected by strict lèse majeste laws. Its lawmakers recently voted against a bill placing two key army units under his direct control but failing to defeat it.
The sudden rise of Future Forward and its charismatic frontman, the billionaire scion of an auto parts empire, has rattled the country's royalist, pro-military establishment, earning Thanathorn and other party members a barrage of lawsuits, more than 20 in all.
The V-Luck case took off in May, when the Election Commission accused Thanathorn of breaking the law for still holding shared in V-Luck Media after registering to run in the March poll and forwarded the case to the Constitutional Court.
At the commission's request, the court suspended Thanathorn from Parliament days later.
Thanathorn claims he transferred his shares in the company to his mother a month before registering as a candidate on Feb. 6, backing it up with a share transfer certificate signed by a notary.
The company only removed him from its list of shareholders three days before the March 24 poll, but Thanathorn argued the transfer was official when he signed the shared over. The company had in any case ceased operations the year before.
Other lawmakers also were under investigation for holding shares in media companies while running for office, but Thanathorn was the only one to be suspended pending the court's decision.
Pitch Pongsawat, an assistant professor of political science at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, said the court was clearly out for Thanathorn.
"It [was] a clear sign from the beginning that Thanathorn is a target," he said. "And now it's clear that they do not want Thanathorn to be in Parliament."
What makes Future Forward such a threat to the old guard, Pitch said, is not only the depth of its voting base but its breadth, reaching across old urban-rural divides.
"People think ... they're just the party of one generation, but in reality it's not," he said.
"Thanathorn is not the party of the young generation; Thanathorn is the party of the new political identity. So when you talk about identity politics, Future Forward successfully created a new identity politics ... which goes beyond the general demographic divisions. Thanathorn is not just popular among the young, he's also popular among so many progressive people."
Pitch said the courts were unlikely to give the Future Forward president jail time over the conviction, which he believes was meant only to boot him out of Parliament and distract the party from its bid to amend the Constitution.
The greater risk, he said, comes from the Election Commission's ongoing investigation of a hefty personal loan Thanathorn extended his young party to help see it through the election campaign, allegedly in excess of legal limits. The case endangers not only Thanathorn - again - but fellow Future Forward leaders and the party itself.
Today's case, Pitch said, is merely "the beginning."