A court in Thailand found Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra guilty of violating the constitution on Wednesday and said she had to step down, throwing the country into further political turmoil, although ministers not implicated in her case can remain in office.
The decision is bound to anger her supporters, but the survival of her government could take the sting out of protests they had planned for the weekend and may make confrontation between pro- and anti-government groups less likely.
Yingluck has faced six months of sometimes deadly protests in the capital, Bangkok, aimed at toppling her government. The anti-government protesters failed to achieve their aim in the street but turned to legal challenges to remove her.
But there appears no end in sight to Thailand's dysfunctional status quo, putting a further strain on the tourism-led economy which could be heading towards a recession, with protesters still pushing for political reform before any new elections are held.
The judge who delivered the verdict said Yingluck had abused her position by transferring the National Security Council chief to another post in 2011 so that a relative could benefit from subsequent job moves.
"The accused was involved in the transfer of Thawil Pliensri from his position as National Security Council head," the judge said, adding that was done in order for Priewpan Damapong, a relative, to "gain a new position".
"The accused acted for her own political benefit ... The transfer wasn't done for the benefit of the country," he added.
Yingluck denied wrongdoing when she appeared in court on Tuesday. She was not present on Wednesday and her spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
It was not immediately clear if she could appeal or if she faced other penalties apart from having to stand down, or if she faced a ban on participation in politics.
COURTS ACCUSED OF BIAS
Thailand's drawn-out political crisis broadly pits Bangkok's middle class and royalist establishment against the mainly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006 and lives in exile abroad to avoid a jail sentence handed down in 2008 for abuse of power.
Yingluck's supporters accuse the Constitutional Court of bias in frequently ruling against governments loyal to Thaksin. In 2008, the court forced two Thaksin-linked prime ministers from office.
Some legal experts had expected the court to remove her entire government. But, instead, it ruled that nine ministers linked to the case