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Thai court sets limits on crackdown

Antigovernment protesters called for the prime minister’s resignation during a rally near her office on Wednesday.

Wally Santana/Associated Press

Antigovernment protesters called for the prime minister’s resignation during a rally near her office on Wednesday.

BANGKOK — Describing the movement to overthrow the Thai government as peaceful, a Bangkok civil court sharply curtailed the powers of the authorities Wednesday and barred them from dispersing protesters, a decision that a legal analyst described as “one step closer to a full-scale judicial coup.”

The decision came a day after clashes between the police and protesters left five people dead, including a police officer. After a series of confrontations in recent weeks and the wide circulation of photographs of heavily armed men among the protesters, the protest movement increasingly resembles an armed insurrection against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

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Samdin Lertbutr, a protest leader, said Wednesday that professional men with weapons were assisting protesters and making the police retreat.

The court, however, found that the protests were being carried out peacefully without weapons, and ordered that the demonstrators’ rights and freedoms be protected according to the constitution. The decision bars the government from using force or weapons to crack down on the demonstrators.

On Tuesday, protesters attacked the police with a grenade, an action that protest leaders initially denied but then acknowledged after video circulated on the Internet.

The protesters, who blocked elections in Bangkok and southern Thailand this month, seek a suspension of democratic procedures and creation of an unelected “people’s council” to replace the Parliament. They resent the dominance of Yingluck, whose movement has won every election since 2001.

There is a long tradition in Thailand of overthrowing governments, often through bloodless coups or what are termed “judicial coups,” in which a leader is removed by the courts. A prime minister who fell out with the Bangkok establishment was removed in 2008 because he received income from a televised cooking program.

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But the current political crisis is far more intractable than those of previous years, and involves a power struggle by two formidable political movements.

The leader of the protests, Suthep Thaugsuban, who has been charged with murder for ordering the use of live ammunition against demonstrations when he was deputy prime minister in 2010, described an all-or-nothing battle.

The court on Wednesday allowed the government to maintain a state of emergency that it declared last month, but barred the authorities from searching or dismantling the areas where protesters are encamped at major intersections in Bangkok. The court also said the protesters had the right to block roads.

Sunai Phasuk, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter that emergency rule was “rendered meaningless” by the court decision.

Sawat Charoenpol, a lawyer representing the protesters, described the ruling as a victory and said the government was “unable to do anything about the protesters.”

Verapat Pariyawong, a commentator and Harvard-trained lawyer, said Wednesday’s decision allowed protesters to claim “pseudo-legitimacy to overthrow the government.” Verapat said the court had relied on an earlier determination by the country’s Constitutional Court, which ruled that the protests were peaceful.

“The noose is tightening around Yingluck and her situation appears untenable,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “It’s now a question of what comes afterward .”

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