Thailand's government said Wednesday it is discussing a special pardon for criminals that might benefit ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled the country in 2008 to escape a corruption conviction.
Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung said the Cabinet discussed the pardon in a meeting Tuesday. He refused to elaborate, saying no final decision had been made.
However, Thai media reports said the Cabinet approved the pardon and that it would allow Thaksin, the brother of current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, to return home without being jailed.
Royal pardons are often issued to mark King Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday on Dec. 5. Although they are officially decreed by the king, their terms are drafted by the government.
Thaksin remains an extremely divisive figure in Thai politics, and any pardon for him is likely to inflame divisions between his supporters and opponents. Two months of protests in the capital last year by pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" demonstrators deteriorated into violence, leaving at least 91 people dead and 1,400 wounded.
Opponents see Thaksin _ a telecommunications tycoon turned populist politician _ as a symbol of endemic corruption and accuse him of illegally amassing great wealth during nearly six years in power. But his supporters say his 2008 conviction on a corruption charge was the result of a political vendetta by the country's urban elite to which the courts were a party.
Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006. New elections brought a pro-Thaksin party to power in January 2008. A period of political instability followed during which a series of governments took office without elections being held.
Thaksin fled the country in July 2008 and was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail. His rivals formed a government in late 2008 but lost elections earlier this year that brought Thaksin's younger sister, Yingluck, to power in a landslide victory. Yingluck is widely seen as a proxy for Thaksin, who is 62.
The Bangkok Post newspaper said the royal pardon would cover people who are over 60 years of age and sentenced to less than three years in prison. People convicted of corruption would also be eligible, unlike last year's pardon, when they were not.
Chalerm said the Justice Ministry drafted the pardon for the Cabinet's consideration. It still needs the approval of the government's legal advisory body, the Council of State, and then the pro forma approval of the king. If approved, some 26,000 convicts would benefit, he said.
"It is in his majesty's hands, indeed. I insist the government has done nothing illegal," Chalerm said. "I will inform the public once it is ready. It's inappropriate to criticize it at this time," he said.