Thai spy pardoned by Cambodian king amid tensions

AP News
Posted: Dec 11, 2009 6:01 AM

Cambodia's king pardoned a Thai man Friday three days after he was sentenced to seven years in prison for spying on Thailand's fugitive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a case that soured relations between the neighbors.

Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, played a role in winning the man's release by calling Cambodia's prime minister and asking for leniency, said government spokesman Khieu Kanharith.

Thai national Siwarak Chothipong, 31, will be released from prison Monday following his pardon by King Norodom Sihamoni, who granted the man's release primarily on humanitarian grounds and was able to expedite it because the man had not appealed his conviction, the spokesman said.

The conviction Tuesday followed Cambodia's decision last month to name Thaksin, a fugitive from justice in Thailand, as its special economic adviser. The appointment and Thaksin's subsequent visit to Cambodia angered the government in Bangkok and resulted in a recall of ambassadors from both sides.

Siwarak, an employee of the Cambodia Air Traffic Service, which manages flights in the country, was found guilty of stealing Thaksin's flight schedule before his Nov. 10 arrival and sending it to the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh. He was charged with stealing information that could impact national security.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled that Thaksin's flight information was confidential and sharing it was a breach of security protocol for dignitaries.

The pardon drew immediate praise from the Thai government, which also called the case politically motivated.

"The government expected this outcome," said deputy Thai government spokesman Supachai Chaisamut. "There is no denying that politics is behind this case.

"No matter who is behind this ... this is a good thing," he said.

There is widespread suspicion in Thailand that the case was orchestrated to allow Thaksin to step in behind-the-scenes to secure Siwarak's royal pardon _ a move that would promote Thaksin's image among his supporters back home and embarrass the Thai government, which has tense relations with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Siwarak's mother and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, leader of the Thaksin-linked opposition party in Thailand, submitted a written request for the pardon to Hun Sen, who forwarded it to the king, Khieu Kanharith said. Thaksin spoke to Hun Sen by telephone to request the pardon, he said.

Kanharith said Siwarak's formal release will take place Monday when the prisoner's mother and members of the Thai political party loyal to Thaksin are scheduled to visit Hun Sen.

Thaksin served as prime minister of Thailand from 2001 to 2006, when he was ousted in a military coup after being accused of corruption and showing disrespect to the monarchy.

He fled into self-imposed exile last year before a Thai court found him guilty of violating a conflict of interest law and sentenced him to two years in prison.

Thaksin's supporters and opponents have repeatedly taken to the streets since 2006 to spar over who has the right to rule the country, sometimes sparking violence.

Thaksin's visit to Cambodia led to allegations he was trying to ignite a new political crisis from across the border.