Thailand’s highest court acquitted prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of breaching ethics clauses in the country’s constitution, allowing him to stay in his job.
The Constitutional Court ruled on a complaint brought by the Pheu Thai party, the largest opposition grouping in Parliament, that Mr 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 ruling comes as Mr 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.
As army commander, Mr Prayuth led a coup in May 2014 that ousted an elected government led by the Pheu Thai party.
He then headed the junta that ruled for five years, and was also prime minister in the military-guided government.
A general election last year brought to power a proxy party established by the military, which with its allies selected Mr Prayuth to serve again as prime minister.
The ongoing protests charge that the 2017 constitution established under military rule gave the military’s proxy Palang Pracharath Party an unfair advantage in the election.
When Mr Prayuth and several of his Cabinet ministers faced a censure debate in Parliament in February, opposition leader Sompong Amornwiwat of the Pheu Thai party raised the issue of whether Mr Prayuth had acted illegally by continuing to live at his army residence at a base in Bangkok.
Mr Prayuth’s defence has been that the official residence of the prime minister is undergoing renovation, and also that he faces security concerns.
The army has argued on his behalf that his military housing is actually a VIP guest house, though critics suggest that if he did not pay at least for water and electricity, he may be breaking the law.
In the past 12 years, court rulings have ousted three Thai prime ministers.
The court, like the military, is considered a pillar of the country’s royalist establishment, and the ultimate bulwark against threats to it.
The three ousted politicians were associated with a former prime minister, populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup after being accused of abuse of power, corruption and disrespect to the monarchy.