Thai PM given more time in critical legal case

BANGKOK - Thailand's Constitutional Court on Wednesday gave crisis-mired Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra more time to submit her defence against allegations of abuse of power which could see her removed from office.

The premier, who is facing a cascade of legal challenges to her tenure as well as months of sometimes violent street protests, must give her defence by May 2, the court said in a statement.

The case pivots on the transfer of then-national security chief Thawil Pliensri after Yingluck was elected in 2011.

A group of senators filed a complaint to the court over Thawil's transfer, saying it was carried out for the benefit of Yingluck's party.

Under the Thai constitution - drawn up after a 2006 coup that ousted Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra as premier - such an offence could lead to her sacking.

The court agreed to Yingluck's request for a 15-day extension - which she made last Friday - and said it "will hear four more witnesses on May 6", including Yingluck and Thawil.

But the statement did not indicate when the court may deliver its ruling.

Thailand's judicial agencies have moved centre stage of the near-six month political drama which has seen months of protests, left the kingdom without a fully functioning government since December and seen a February election annulled.

Political violence has also left at least 25 people dead and hundreds more wounded, raising fears of a wider conflict to come.

On Wednesday afternoon Kamol Duangpasuk - a pro-government "Red Shirt" poet and critic of Thailand's controversial royal defamation laws - was shot dead in front of a Bangkok restaurant, according to local police.

But officers could not immediately confirm if the murder of the 44-year-old poet, also known by his pen name Mainueng Kor Kuntee, was politically motivated.

Time running out for Yingluck?

Yingluck is also accused of negligence linked to a loss-making rice subsidy scheme that critics say engendered widespread corruption.

Either case could lead to her removal from office and pro-government supporters have upped their rhetoric in anticipation of a knock-out legal blow over coming weeks.

Prominent Red Shirt activist Thida Thavornseth said she expects the Constitutional Court to rule against Yingluck in early May.

"Until then we will travel to our provinces to get our people ready to rally... we will protect this government," she said in a televised speech.

Mass protests by the Red Shirts in 2010 triggered a military crackdown under the then Democrat Party government that left scores dead.

The backstory to the crisis is Thaksin's removal from power in a 2006 coup which plunged the kingdom into a downward spiral of political turmoil from which it is yet to emerge.

Thailand has since been cleaved by rivalries broadly pitting the Bangkok-based middle-class and establishment, as well as staunchly royalist south, against the north and northeastern rural heartlands of the Shinawatra clan.

Thaksin-allied parties have won every valid election for more than a decade, helped by strong support in the northern half of the kingdom.

Anti-government protesters want Yingluck to resign to make way for an unelected "people's council" to oversee reforms aimed at diluting the Shinawatra's influence on Thai politics.

The political paralysis has also darkened the outlook for the kingdom's economy, with the highly lucrative tourism among the sectors hit by the lingering protests.

In response to the gloomy growth forecast, Thailand's central bank on Wednesday said it would hold its benchmark interest rate at 2.0 percent - a three-year low - to encourage spending.