Mar 5, 11:33 AM EST

Thai court sentences 'Red Shirts' to jail for 2009 rioting

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BANGKOK (AP) -- A Thai court sentenced 15 members of the "Red Shirt" political movement to four years in prison on Thursday for inciting rioting that disrupted an important regional conference in 2009, news reports said.

The sentencing by a court in Pattaya is the latest blow against supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of corruption and disrespect for the king.

Those sentenced included two of the group's more senior leaders, Worachai Hemma, a former pro-Thaksin lawmaker, and Arisman Pongruangrong, a popular former pop singer-turned-firebrand, the Bangkok Post newspaper reported on its website. Two of the 15 were absent for the sentencing, and the others were held after an initial denial of bail.

The disrupted meeting was a summit of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, some of whom were evacuated by helicopter after the Red Shirt mob broke into the hotel hosting the conference. The protesters, numbering about 2,000, were demanding that then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva call new elections because they felt he came to office illegitimately after two prime ministers they supported were forced from office under questionable circumstances.

Thaksin and his allies have won every national election since 2001. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was forced from the prime minister's job last year by a controversial court ruling just before another military coup toppled the government.

Thaksin's supporters believe the country's traditional establishment - led by royalists and the military - fears his popularity and is attempting to reduce his influence. Their suspicions are fueled by a pattern of court rulings which have condemned Thaksin's supporters while leaving his opponents mostly untouched. Thaksin opponents who occupied the prime minister's office for three months in 2008 and took over Bangkok's two airports for a week have mostly not faced justice.

The current junta and the interim government it installed, assisted by allies in state agencies and the judiciary, have taken a series of measures meant to reduce the power of Thaksin's political machine. A constitution that is being drafted is expected to strengthen the permanent bureaucracy - which is associated with the royalist establishment - at the expense of political parties.

The 2009 rioting at Pattaya, along with several days of violence in the capital, Bangkok, foreshadowed greater trouble in 2010, when Red Shirt protesters revived their campaign and forced the military to garrison parts of Bangkok. A small number of armed militants assisted the protesters, and over the course of two months more than 90 people were killed and at least 1,500 were injured, with violence peaking when the army moved in to crush the protest.

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