Thai court bans use of force on protesters

An anti-government demonstrator (L) points his finger at a policeman as they talk through the gate of the Government House in Bangkok on December 12, 2013.

BANGKOK - Thai security authorities found their hands tied after the Civil Court on Wednesday ordered them not to use force on protesters or disperse demonstrations using emergency laws.

The court, however, also ruled that the state of emergency imposed on Bangkok and surrounding areas can continue.

Analysts say the prohibitions effectively give free rein to a three-month-old protest movement aimed at toppling the caretaker government.

The ruling came one day after five people were killed and more than 60 injured in Bangkok's historic district as police tried to clear roads occupied by protesters since last year. Both sides accused each other of inciting the violence, in which guns, tear gas and grenades were used.

Since they began their protests last October, the demonstrators have disrupted voting in the Feb 2 general election, blockaded key intersections in the capital and occupied several government offices.

In handing down its decision, the Civil Court cited a ruling by the Constitutional Court that said the protests were peaceful.

Human Rights Watch analyst Sunai Phasuk, who called Wednesday's ruling "bizarre", said: "All the evidence… has shown that the protest movement is not entirely peaceful and that there are armed elements working in parallel."

The state of emergency that took effect on Jan 22 was meant to contain protests in the lead-up to the Feb 2 election.

Thai police, wary that any large-scale violence would give the powerful military an excuse to intervene, have largely avoided direct confrontations with protesters.

Soon after the decree was invoked, protest leaders filed a case challenging the legality of the 60-day state of emergency.

The protesters are supported by many among Thailand's royalist elite and Bangkok's middle class, as well as backers of the opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the election. They want caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to make way for a "people's council" that would implement political reforms.

Their obstructionist actions disrupted last month's election, leaving Thailand in political limbo. Meanwhile, more than 100 people have been arrested for flouting the emergency decree.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has vowed to hound Ms Yingluck at every temporary office she uses until she is driven out of government.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva Wednesday urged all stakeholders to appoint someone with "neutrality" and "credibility" as interim prime minister to oversee reforms before a fresh election is called.

The current administration did not fit the bill, he told reporters.

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