Thai court acquits 'popcorn gunman' accused of protest bloodshed

BANGKOK - A Thai appeals court on Tuesday overturned a murder conviction of a gunman who gained national notoriety for allegedly firing an assault rifle concealed inside a popcorn bag during political clashes in 2014.

The ruling is likely to reignite anger over a perceived bias in Thailand's court system, which is seen as overwhelmingly tilted in favour of the conservative, army-allied political faction the gunman was linked to.

Wiwat Yodprasit, known as the "popcorn gunman", was sentenced to 37 years in prison last March for allegedly killing a bystander during the daytime shootout between his 'Yellowshirt' camp and rival 'Redshirt' protesters.

Shortly after his arrest in 2014, Wiwat told reporters he was paid $9 a day to act as a guard for his anti-government camp, which agitated for the coup that brought the current junta to power.

He said the popcorn bag was used to collect spent bullet shells and hide an M-16 assault rifle given to him by the head of the movement's security team.

But an appeals court ruled Tuesday that his confession, which he later retracted, was "doubtful" and that a still photo of a masked gunman with the popcorn back was not enough to prove Wiwat's guilt.

"There is a lack of eyewitness accounts to confirm the suspect's doubtful confession," the judge said, ruling to "reverse the verdict and dismiss the case".

The ruling, which will now go to the Supreme Court, is likely to inflame the anti-coup 'Redshirts', who have long complained of bias in the courts and bureaucracy against their political camp.

The Redshirt movement, made up of mostly rural Thais loyal to ousted premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, has seen a string of victories in the polls crushed by military coups and other interventions backed by Bangkok's traditional elite.

The 2014 clash involving the popcorn gunman was one of several violent outbreaks during the elite-backed protest movement seeking to oust Yingluck's elected government.

At the time, the "popcorn gunman" was hailed as a hero by the anti-government supporters, with images of his green and yellow popcorn sack appearing on t-shirts and other protest memorabilia.

Throughout the campaign large swathes of downtown Bangkok were controlled by the 'Yellowshirt' anti-government protesters, some of whom set up checkpoints with armed guards.

The rival Redshirts have also been known to harbour armed elements in their ranks.

The current junta has barred all political activities but overwhelmingly targeted Redshirt supporters with arrests, mandatory "attitude adjustment" sessions and other forms of intimidation.