Thai authorities charged former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Thursday with giving orders to use live ammunition that led to civilian deaths during a military crackdown on an anti-government protest in May 2010.
The Department of Special Investigation (DSI), part of the Justice Ministry that has a similar role to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, charged Abhisit and former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban for their role in the 2010 events.
"They allowed security forces to use weapons and live ammunition that led to the death of civilians," said DSI chief Tarit Pengdith.
The DSI's decision to press charges was influenced by a court ruling on Sept. 17 in the inquest into the death of taxi driver Phan Kamthong during the protests. The inquest found that troops, acting on orders from state officials, killed Phan.
The two politicians were charged under article 288 of the criminal code. If found guilty, they could face the death penalty or up to life in prison. Neither was present when the charges were read out.
Thousands of protesters, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, had taken to the streets of Bangkok in March 2010 to demand elections. More than 90 people died during the protracted protest.
Suthep headed the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation(CRES), a crisis control centre that authorised "live fire" zones during the protest and used emergency powers to shut down websites, radio stations and a television station.
Government-backed troops forcibly dispersed the crowd on May 19, prompting rioting and arson attacks that saw over 30 buildings set ablaze in some of the worst violence in modern Thai history.
Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is now prime minister. Her Puea Thai Party beat Abhisit's Democrat Party in an election in July 2011 and he became leader of the opposition.
"The DSI is working at the behest of the government and the investigation is completely one-sided," said Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, a Democrat party spokesman. "The DSI wants to put pressure on Suthep to admit responsibility for the 2010 deaths and we will fight back."
On September 17, the Truth for Reconciliation Commission, set up by Abhisit's government to investigate the deadly clashes, released a 351-page report that laid blame for the deaths on the military and a shadowy group of militants dressed in black who hid among the protesters.
Some analysts said the charges were a way for the ruling Puea Thai Party to pressure the opposition into accepting a broad amnesty deal that could whitewash guilt on both sides of the conflict and bring Thaksin home from his self-imposed exile in Dubai.
"It's a political game and a way for Puea Thai to gain the upper hand by forcing their opposition to accept some sort of amnesty deal," Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a think tank in Bangkok, told Reuters.
"Suthep and Abhisit can't avoid a trial because so many lives were lost. They will have to accept some responsibility," he added. "Thailand has never jailed a politician for ordering a military crackdown on civilians so if Suthep and Abhisit are convicted, that would be a first."
Some question the DSI's neutrality, accusing Tarit of backing Abhisit's viewpoint when he was in office, then switching emphasis after Yingluck came to power and pressing charges against the former premier and his deputy.
"For the country to get out of this cycle of violence, justice needs to be impartial and accountability accepted on both sides including violence committed by protesters and black shirts," Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch told Reuters.
Abhisit and Suthep will be summoned for questioning and to hear the charges against them on Dec. 12.