BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai criminal court on Thursday threw out charges of murder and abuse of power faced by a former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his then deputy over a deadly crackdown on street protesters in 2010.
The decision, three months after the army seized power in a bloodless May 22 coup, is sure to spark the anger of Thailand's "red shirt" activists, who have spotlighted the country's long culture of impunity for holders of political office.
But with power firmly in the hands of military rulers who have quelled all dissent, the court's decision will hardly make a ripple in the country's political trajectory.
The court said it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case because the two men held public office at the time of the protest.
"The court has no jurisdiction to consider the case because the two were a prime minister and deputy prime minister," a judge said on Thursday. "The charges relate to political office holders. The criminal court therefore dismisses the charges."
Thailand's public prosecutors had charged the two over the crackdown on protesters who were mostly from the red shirt movement, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). Both men have denied the charges.
Abhisit, head of the conservative, pro-establishment Democrat Party, faced popular opposition in 2010, after tens of thousands of red shirt activists demanding fresh elections took to the streets of the Thai capital, accusing his government of being elitist and army-backed.
The other man freed of charges on Thursday, Abhisit's former deputy Suthep Thaugsuban, quit the party last year and went on to lead months of street protests that culminated in the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the May coup.
As deputy premier Suthep authorized security forces to end weeks of protests that reduced parts of downtown Bangkok to battle zones. Since the May coup, he has become a Buddhist monk, and appeared in court wearing saffron robes.
The red shirts broadly support fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, ousted premier Yingluck. The army toppled Thaksin in 2006, after he won two landslide election victories, mostly on the back of support from voters in the rural north and northeast.
He later fled Thailand to avoid a 2008 jail term for corruption and has lived abroad since.
The red shirts formed after his ouster and staged numerous demonstrations against what they see as conservative forces that control business and power in Thailand.
They accused Abhisit, who rose to power after Thaksin's ouster, of becoming prime minister with the backing of the 2006 coup-makers, an accusation he denies.
Following the coup last May, the junta neutralized the red shirts and detained prominent leaders of the group.
But legal avenues of action against Abhisit and Suthep have not been exhausted, with both targeted in a separate petition to anti-graft panel the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).
If it finds enough evidence, the panel could send the case to the Supreme Court's division for criminal action against holders of political posts.
"The case is currently under review by the NACC, we will see what happens next," said Sawat Charoenpol, Suthep's lawyer.
(Reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)