Thai prime minister acquitted of ethics breach, retains post

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Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha leaves after a press conference at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Thailands highest court Wednesday acquitted Prayuth of breaching ethics clauses in the countrys constitution, allowing him to stay in his job. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK – Thailand’s highest court on Wednesday acquitted Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of breaching ethics clauses in the country’s constitution, allowing him to stay in his job at a time he's fending off calls for his resignation from student-led pro-democracy protesters.

The Constitutional Court ruled on a complaint brought by the Pheu Thai party, the largest opposition grouping in Parliament, that Prayuth had broken the law by continuing to live in his military residence after he retired as army commander in September 2014.

The complaint alleged that he broke constitutional articles barring government ministers from receiving special benefits from state agencies or enterprises because that would amount to a conflict of interest. If a minister is found guilty of violating ethical standards, the official is to be disqualified and forced to step down.

The nine-judge panel agreed with an army explanation that retired senior officers such as Prayuth are allowed to stay in army housing in recognition of their service. The judges ruled unanimously in Prayuth's favor.

The ruling comes as Prayuth has been dealing with a persistent student-led pro-democracy movement that has been holding frequent well-attended rallies demanding that he and his government step down, charging that they came to power illegitimately.

Even before the court convened Wednesday, the protesters had called a rally to respond to the verdict.

"Thailand’s justice system has completely lost its integrity. The court’s verdict today shows they look down on the people. This will fuel people’s anger and be the condition that drives our rallies to a higher level,” a protest leader, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, told The Associated Press.

The rally attracted several thousand people, and like many other recent ones had a carnival atmosphere at times. But there was also an angry tone when Parit tore up and burned a book written by one of the judges, Nakharin Mektrairat, who in the past decade has become a prominent defender of conservative Thai ideology.