BANGKOK, Thailand – A Thai court found former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra guilty of corruption and sentenced him Tuesday to two years in prison, adding a new twist to the country's paralyzing political crisis.
The guilty verdict was the first against the country's former leader since he was ousted by a 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power.
Thaksin, 59, jumped bail and fled to England two months ago along with his wife, Pojaman, 51, who was also charged. The Supreme Court acquitted her on Tuesday.
From his home near London, Thaksin condemned the conviction but said it was hardly a surprise.
"It was politically motivated since the court is a carry-forward of the coup d'etat," Thaksin told The Associated Press. "I'm a politician and after I was toppled by the coup, it's normal that they will try every means to justify it."
The ruling was greeted with excitement by the political movement trying to force out the current government, which they accuse of being controlled by Thaksin.
Raucous cheers erupted among several thousand members of the People's Alliance for Democracy, which has occupied the grounds of the prime minister's offices since August. They chanted, "Go to jail, go to jail!"
The charges stemmed from allegations that Thaksin facilitated his wife's purchase of lucrative Bangkok real estate from a state agency in 2003, while he was prime minister.
"The defendant was the prime minister at the time. He should have been honest and ethical and should not have violated counter-corruption laws," Thongloh Chomngam, head of the court's nine-judge panel, said in reading from the lengthy verdict.
A prosecutor said the attorney-general's office "will speed up" its effort to extradite Thaksin, who remains the country's most influential politician. A formal request has yet to be made.
"We set up a special task force to handle Thaksin's extradition process some time ago," said Seksan Bangsomboon. "Tomorrow we will come and get the verdict and have it translated into English and then send it with our request to the British government asking for the extradition of Thaksin."
Extradition across borders is usually a lengthy and complicated process, and many countries make an exception for cases where there may be reason to believe that politics played a part in the legal proceedings.
Thaksin said he was confident he would be able to remain in Britain.
"I was waiting for today before planning my life," he said. "I want to be a prominent businessman in the U.K. if the British people will welcome me."
The Supreme Court's widely expected ruling made Thaksin the first politician convicted of corruption committed while prime minister, but it was unlikely to ease the political tensions that have been boiling since the protesters took over Government House on Aug. 26 and staged militant street demonstrations.
"We still will not leave Government House, and we still call for political reform to get rid of the Thaksin regime and the current political system plagued with corruption and abuse of power," said Pipob Thongchai, a protest leader.
The protest leaders say they want to stamp out political corruption. But their critics say their plans would disenfranchise the country's poor majority and put more power in the hands of the traditional elite.
The court found Thaksin guilty of violating several laws barring bar public officeholders and their spouses from holding a contract with the state. Thaksin's lawyers had argued that the agency from which the land was purchased was an independent body.
Thaksin built up a political base in the countryside during his 2001-2006 time in office by implementing a raft of populist programs.
His brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, is the current prime minister and has been labeled a Thaksin puppet by protesters demanding his ouster.
Somchai's government has been virtually paralyzed by the protests.
Former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin turned politician faces a string of court cases and investigations into alleged corruption and abuse of power during his six years in office.
Thaksin has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, saying the charges were politically motivated.
The court also Tuesday ordered a fresh arrest warrant for Thaksin, who already has several warrants out for him in connection with other corruption cases.