BANGKOK: Thailand's Constitutional Court said Tuesday it will rule on May 7 whether to remove Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office on abuse of power charges, a verdict that could plunge the country deeper into crisis.
The premier appeared at the court to deny the allegation, filed by a group of senators who said that then-national security chief Thawil Pliensri was replaced after her 2011 election for the benefit of her party.
But the court's president Charoon Intachan said the nine-member bench had heard enough evidence and was ready to rule.
"The hearing is over... the court has decided to rule on May 7 at noon," he said.
The case, one of two potential knockout legal moves against her premiership, comes as Thailand's political crisis reaches a critical juncture.
Anti-government protesters are still massed on Bangkok's streets -- although in diminished numbers -- and Yingluck's supporters are also threatening to rally to defend her.
Under the constitution -- forged after a 2006 coup that ousted Yingluck's billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra as premier -- such an offence could lead to her removal and a ban from politics.
The court could also extend its verdict to cabinet members who endorsed the decision to remove Thawil, potentially dislodging a layer of ruling party decision-makers with ties to Thaksin, who lives overseas to avoid jail for corruption convictions.
"I didn't violate any laws, I didn't receive any benefit from the appointment," a composed Yingluck told the court earlier Tuesday.
Pro-government "Red Shirts" have vowed to defend Yingluck from being toppled and any decision to remove the premier will kindle fears of deadly clashes between rival political sides.
At least 25 people have died and hundreds more have been wounded in political violence linked to the six-month protests.
"I am quite surprised that the judges will spend only one day to deliberate," said Phongthep Thepkajana, a deputy prime minister and legal advisor to the ruling Puea Thai party leader.
End game near?
The Constitutional Court has played a key role in recent chapters of Thai politics.
Critics accuse it of rushing through Yingluck's case and allege previous rulings show that it is politically biased against the Shinawatras.
In 2008, the court forced two Thaksin-linked prime ministers from office.
The backdrop to the current crisis is an eight-year political rupture since Thaksin was booted out of office by an army coup.
The kingdom has become fractured since then, split between the Bangkok-based elites and middle-classes, backed by the royalist south -- and the rural north and northeast and urban poor who have powered Thaksin-led or allied governments to office in every election since 2001.
Street protests, sparked by a bungled bid to push through an amnesty that could have allowed Thaksin to return, have so far failed to force Yingluck from office.
Yingluck has also been charged by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) with neglect of duty in connection with a costly rice subsidy scheme that critics say fomented rampant corruption.
If indicted on those charges, Yingluck would be suspended from office and face an impeachment vote in the upper house of parliament that could lead to a five-year ban from politics.
The Red Shirts have vowed to take to the streets if Yingluck is toppled, raising the spectre of clashes with security forces.
"But as of now, it remains impossible to know whether the Red Shirts will offer as much resistance as some of their leaders claim," said Michael Montesano at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The Constitutional Court oversees cases of violations of Thailand's constitution, which was rewritten in the wake of Thaksin's ouster.
In March it nullified a February general election disrupted by protesters, leaving the kingdom in legislative limbo with only a caretaker government.
Election authorities and the ruling party have agreed on July 20 for new polls, but the date has been rejected by the opposition Democrat Party, casting doubts over its ability to resolve the crisis. (AFP)