BANGKOK — A Thai court on Tuesday released on bail seven top leaders of the "Red Shirt" opposition movement after they spent nine months in detention over their roles in mass rallies in Bangkok.
The men were held on terrorism charges since their two-month long demonstration ended in May 2010 with a deadly military crackdown that left about 90 people dead in clashes between protesters and armed troops.
A judge at the capital's Criminal Court said the decision to release the seven -- who include key movement members Natthawut Saikua, Weng Tojirakarn and Kokaew Pikulthong -- was based on new evidence from the defence.
Their bail conditions include a ban on foreign travel and on making comments likely to incite unrest.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, when asked whether the ruling would help reconciliation efforts, told reporters the decision to free the seven was the court's.
Most Red Shirts leaders surrendered to police soon after the army moved in to break up the demonstration in the heart of Bangkok's retail district. Some others are still on the run.
Hundreds of people, some playing loud music and carrying red roses, gathered outside the prison in a suburb of the capital and cheered loudly as the defendants walked free, dressed in white T-shirts and holding hands.
"Friends, we are back. We are back with our spirits, our intentions and our lives, which we dedicate to democracy," Natthawut told the jubilant crowds, thanking them for their support.
Jatuporn Prompan, a key Red Shirt leader who is free because of immunity granted to serving members of parliament, said the ruling was "very meaningful" for the movement.
He vowed to press ahead with the next scheduled protest on March 12, marking a year since the start of the 2010 rally.
"We will fight all cases we face," he said, adding that he would ask those leaders still on the run to surrender themselves to authorities and seek bail.
Thailand's political landscape has remained fractured since last year's unrest, the country's worst civil violence in decades.
The Reds have held a series of peaceful one-day rallies in the capital in recent weeks demanding the release of their leaders.
Police estimated around 30,000 people massed in the city on Saturday for a rally to mark nine months since the bloody army crackdown.
Rival "Yellow Shirt" nationalists who claim allegiance to the throne have also been on the streets, rallying near Government House recently in protest at Abhisit's handling of a deadly border dispute with Cambodia.
Red Shirts complain that many key Yellows have remained free despite terrorism charges relating to the seizure of two Bangkok airports by the group in late 2008 that left more than 300,000 travellers stranded and caused major damage to Thailand's economy.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said Tuesday's ruling would "release a bit of pressure" in the short term.
But he added: "If the Red Shirts are further enraged with the double standards and the Yellow Shirts are mobilised against the government this is a recipe for a clash down the road."
On Tuesday Thailand agreed to extend the Internal Security Act in Bangkok to cope with the renewed political rallies.
The laws -- less strict than emergency rule, which was imposed for more than eight months last year -- authorise security personnel to stop people gathering in certain areas, officials said.
The mainly rural, working class Reds are broadly loyal to fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and lives overseas to avoid a jail sentence for corruption imposed in absentia.
They view Thailand's current government as undemocratic because it came to power in 2008 in a parliamentary vote after a court ruling threw out the previous administration, and have called for snap elections.
Last week, Thailand's deputy premier suggested elections would be called by June.
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