Thai Court Drops Charges against Protest Leaders

BANGKOK ~ A Thai court dropped charges of insurrection on Thursday against the main leaders of a protest movement bidding to topple the government, two days after the worst street unrest in Bangkok for years.
The decision by the Appeals Court opens the way for them to surrender – as they have promised to do – but offers no long-term solution to the political turmoil hobbling the country.
It followed Tuesday’s clashes between police and protesters which left two people dead and hundreds injured, and left negotiations between the two sides in tatters.
Separately, Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat announced the government would investigate the violence and liaise with victims.
“The committee will investigate who is right and who is wrong, where the problem occurred and who resorted to violence first so that the public will be accurately informed,” he told reporters after a cabinet meeting.
He said he hoped it would prove the government had no role in the unrest.
“The government does not intend to harm anybody,” he added. “People should be patient.”
The Appeals Court decided that although the nine protest leaders committed illegal acts, “it is unreasonable to issue an arrest warrant on insurrection charges, thus the court revokes insurrection charges for all nine suspects.”
As well as the charge of insurrection – which carries the maximum sentence of death or life in prison – the court also dropped charges of conspiracy to commit insurrection and refusing to disperse.
Two less serious charges of illegal assembly and inciting arrest remain.
So far authorities have arrested two leaders, Chamlong Srimuang and Chaiwat Sinsuwong. The other leaders promised Thursday to surrender to police.
“All seven leaders will surrender, but we will meet this afternoon to set the time and after that we will bail ourselves out to continue our fight,” a spokesman for the leaders, Suriyasai Katasila, said.
The seven who have not been arrested had called on supporters to march to parliament Tuesday to try to stop Somchai delivering a policy address. Police moved in and the violence left 469 injured as well as the two dead.
Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the court ruling strengthened the hand of the anti-government protesters, a royalist coalition that goes by the name the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
“If they’re on bail they can keep doing the act and still be under the law. It’s a big game for them because now people cannot accuse them of being above the law,” Thitinan said.
In a potent symbol of the scale of the crisis, Somchai’s cabinet met in an airport terminal converted for their use while the PAD protesters occupy their offices.
The PAD claims the current government is running the nation on behalf of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – Somchai is his brother-in-law – and objects to its plans to amend the constitution, brought in following the September 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin.
Somchai’s People Power Party in December won the first elections since the 2006 coup, but has been beset by protests and court decisions against it, one of which removed his predecessor Samak Sundaravej from office last month.
One court case that is outstanding against the PPP could yet see the party dissolved and forced from power.
Earlier, Thailand’s army chief General Anupong Paojinda promised that the military would not launch a coup – the kingdom has suffered 18 since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 – and would stay neutral as the political crisis unfolds.
“The situation does not warrant staging a coup,” he told Thai television, adding: “It’s up to the government to decide what to do if it cannot contain the situation.”

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