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Thailand protest leaders face charges

A Thai court issued arrest warrants on Wednesday for nine leaders of the anti-government movement whose members are occupying the prime minister's compound in a standoff with riot police.
Image: Protesters at the Government House
Supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy protest Wednesday in Bangkok, demanding that the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej step down. Sukree Sukplang / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thai courts on Wednesday ordered anti-government protesters to immediately end their occupation of the prime minister's office compound and for their leaders to be arrested for insurrection and other charges.

Deputy Police Chief Lt. Gen. Jongrak Chutanont said Bangkok Civil Court, acting on a police request, late Wednesday night issued a ruling ordering the People's Alliance for Democracy to immediately leave the government compound and also stop blocking public streets.

The alliance is seeking to force the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to step down. It accuses it of serving as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and faces several pending corruption cases. Thaksin is in self-chosen exile in Britain.

A protest organizer, Samran Rodpetch, announced the court order from the protest rally stage and indicated that they would not comply. Demonstrators were seen building barricades to thwart any police raid.

It was unclear if police would try to enforce the order. Samak said Tuesday that the authorities would avoid using force against the demonstrators.

Arrest warrants were issued earlier Wednesday for nine leaders of the right-wing protest group.

Standoff at government compound
Inside the Government House compound, nearly 2,000 police were facing off against thousands of protesters who occupied the grounds on Tuesday afternoon and stayed overnight. The number of protesters inside at least doubled from Wednesday morning's total of 2,000, and four or five times as many appeared to be on streets outside, with the total approaching the 30,000 the government said protested on Tuesday.

Deputy police spokesman Maj. Gen. Suraphol Tuanthong said the Criminal Court issued warrants for the arrest of the nine alliance leaders on charges of insurrection, conspiracy, illegal assembly and refusing orders to disperse.

Insurrection, which is the legal equivalent of treason, carries a maximum penalty of death or life imprisonment. No one is known to have been executed for at least 30 years on the charge, which is rarely prosecuted.

Samak said he won't use force to remove the protesters because they were trying to incite violence and the conditions for another coup. He also said he would not resign.

"They want bloodshed in the country. They want the military to come out and do the coup again," Samak said.

The alliance's best known leaders are Chamlong Srimuang, an influential former politician and army officer, and Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul.

Police said they were not planning to use force to arrest them and the other seven leaders, and urged them instead to turn themselves in.

Chamlong previously said they would be willing to be arrested. But their supporters at Government House reacted angrily to news of the warrants.

"We will not allow police to arrest our leaders," protest organizer Samran told the cheering crowd. "If the police want to arrest them, come here and do so, or if they want our leaders to give themselves up that is fine, but the government has to resign first."

The alliance, which is loosely aligned with conservative factions of the monarchy and the military, said their protests were a "final showdown" in efforts to oust the government.

"If we leave before this government resigns, that means we are defeated," Chamlong said.

Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the army chief, reassured the public Tuesday that the military was not planning another coup, and would not get involved in politics.

Crisis began in 2006
The takeover of the Government House compound was the latest twist in a political crisis that began in early 2006, when critics of Thaksin established the alliance to force him from office over allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

After Thaksin was deposed in the bloodless coup, his party was dissolved and he was banned from public office until 2012.

But Samak led Thaksin's political allies to a December 2007 election victory, and their assumption of power triggered fears that Thaksin would make a political comeback. He remains popular with the country's rural majority.

The alliance responded by resuming their protests in May, accusing Samak of trying to amend the constitution to free Thaksin from a string of corruption charges.

Thaksin skipped bail ahead of his latest corruption hearing and went to London, claiming he would not get a fair trial in Thailand.

On Tuesday, alliance members stormed and seized the main offices of the government-run NBT television station, temporarily forcing it off the air. Other alliance followers besieged four government ministries.