Thailand's highest court is preparing to deliver a landmark ruling on whether to confiscate up to $2.3bn in frozen assets belonging to Thaksin Shinawatra, the country's ousted prime minister.
The verdict due late on Friday afternoon could trigger renewed protests by Thaksin supporters, fuelling tensions that have paralysed Thai politics for almost four years.
Amid warnings of potential unrest from the so-called red shirts – supporters of the former prime minister – the government has deployed thousands of troops and police across the country ahead of the court's ruling.
Early on Friday the nine judges overseeing the case arrived at court in bullet-proof cars ahead of talks to hammer out their final joint verdict.
Dubbed "judgement day" by the Thai media, the release of the verdict has been timed to minimise any impact to Thailand's stock market, which will close for the long weekend before the announcement, and not resume until Tuesday.
Following statements by red shirt organisers that they plan to stage mass protests, checkpoints have been set up across the capital, Bangkok, with banks told to stock extra cash to accommodate panic withdrawals.
Rule of law
Ahead of Friday's ruling Suthep Thaugsuban, the Thai deputy prime minister who is in charge of national security, sought to play down the wider significance of the case, saying it was concerned only with Thaksin's wealth.
"Thaksin must respect and accept the rule of law as well as other Thai people," he said late on Thursday.
"It's not possible for the whole Thai nation to respect the law but not Thaksin."
More than 30,000 police and soldiers have been stationed around Bangkok and provinces where Thaksin is popular, while guards have been assigned to protect the nine presiding judges in the case, including offering them "safe houses".
"Security forces are deployed in key areas and the security plan will be stepped up during the reading of the verdict," Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman, said.
"We are confident that all important persons in judicial, executive and legislative branches are under tight security."
The case centres on proceeds from the sale of Shin Corp, Thaksin's telecom company, and the court will determine the fate of assets frozen after he was ousted in a 2006 coup.
|Thaksin supporters vowed to continue their struggle regardless of the verdict [AFP]
The verdict is seen as a critical moment for Thaksin, 60, who won two successive election landslides, became Thailand's first leader to serve out a full term in office, and maintains a strong rural support base.
Anti-graft investigators and prosecutors say Thaksin used government policies during his five years in office to enrich his family's fortunes.
They have urged the judges to confiscate every asset his family earned from selling Shin Corp shares to Temasek Holdings, Singapore's investment arm, in 2006 shortly before Thaksin's removal from office.
The billionaire tycoon has denied all the charges, which his lawyers say are politically-motivated.
"I want to reaffirm that I and my family earned all of the money with our hard work, brains, and sweat. We have never been corrupt as accused," he said in a statement on Twitter early Friday from his current base in Dubai.
Thaksin, who has lived in exile since the 2006 coup, is reportedly planning to give a running commentary on Friday's proceedings via live video link as the judgement is being read.
The court proceeding is to be broadcast to supporters from the headquarters of his opposition ally, the Puea Thai party.
The political crisis triggered by Thaksin's ouster has left Thailand and its economy in a state of unrest and uncertainty over the past four years, with frequent protests, airport blockades and three changes in government in 15 months.
"Thaksin will carry out his revenge against his opponents. The clashes of opinions will persist and are not likely to cease for the next couple of years"
Suriyasai Katasila, People's Alliance for Democracy
But regardless of which way the court rules, Thaksin supporters claiming disenfranchisement have vowed to continue their struggle.
"There is no good outcome because whatever the verdict is, there will be reaction from one political group or the other," Warut Siwasariyanon, the head of research at Finansia Syrus Securities in Bangkok, told the Reuters news agency.
"We are in for a long and grinding battle."
A Thaksin critic said a verdict against the former prime minister would erode his legitimacy with the public, but not end the political schism.
"Even as assets are seized, the conflict will continue," Suriyasai Katasila of the People's Alliance for Democracy, which leads the anti-Thaksin movement known as the Yellow Shirts, told The Associated Press.
"Thaksin will carry out his revenge against his opponents. The clashes of opinions will persist and are not likely to cease for the next couple of years."
The pro-Thaksin movement, known formally as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, has called for a peaceful "million man march" in Bangkok on March 14.