BANGKOK, Thailand — Popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra narrowly held on to his post Friday as Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled 8 to 7 that he was not guilty of deliberately hiding millions of dollars in assets.
In the biggest test of Thailand's strict anti-corruption law, four of the judges accepted the billionaire prime minister's defense that he made an "honest mistake" and did not purposely conceal some of his wealth. The other four members of the majority ruled that the law did not apply to Thaksin--a former deputy prime minister--because he had already left office.
"I want to thank the majority of the judges in the court who gave me justice," Thaksin said after the verdict. "I also want to announce to the world that Thailand is still intact and that people who are not corrupt are not thrown out of office."
The ruling was a significant setback for the National Counter-Corruption Commission and its effort to root out graft in public office.
Some analysts said the court had made a political ruling to preserve stability and keep in office an exceptionally popular leader who has promised to revive the economy.
"The choice for the court was to sacrifice the rule of law and to give Thaksin a second chance so he could save the country," said Sunai Phasuk, an analyst with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development in Bangkok, the capital. "The court made the ruling on political grounds, not legal."
Seemingly anticipating such criticism, Chief Judge Prasert Nasakul was almost contrite in announcing the verdict.
"We strictly abided by the oath we take in front of his majesty the king to be unbiased," Prasert said. "If our judgment today disappointed you, I humbly apologize, because we have to abide by the law and constitution."
If the court had ruled against Thaksin, the prime minister would have been banned from holding public office for five years.
The counter-corruption commission charged in December that Thaksin had violated the country's disclosure law by not reporting the transfer of millions of dollars in shares of companies he founded to members of his household staff, including his maid and driver.
The commission maintained that Thaksin should have disclosed ownership of the assets in 1997 when he left the post of deputy prime minister in a previous government.
The reporting requirement was included in the 1997 constitution to help prevent the kind of endemic corruption in Thai government that contributed to the Asian economic collapse that year.
The requirement for asset disclosure upon leaving office is designed to expose officials who use their positions to become wealthy. The four judges' conclusion that the law did not apply because Thaksin had left office could undermine prosecution of similar cases in the future.
Despite the allegations against Thaksin, Thai voters overwhelmingly elected him and his party, Thais Love Thais, in January.
It is unclear why Thaksin and his wife put the shares in the names of employees who could not possibly have afforded to purchase them. Some speculate that the move may have been part of a scheme to avoid taxes or manipulate stock prices, but no other charges have been filed against him.
Klanarong Chanthick, secretary-general of the counter-corruption commission, argued earlier that "the evidence of intentional asset concealment abounds."
During the court proceedings, Thaksin did not attempt to claim that he had fulfilled the requirements of the law. Instead, he contended that the disclosure form was unclear and that his wife had transferred the shares without his knowledge. Any error, he said, was inadvertent.
"We made our judgment in accordance with the evidence and facts we had," said Judge Mongkol Saratan, who voted against Thaksin. "I congratulate the prime minister even though I am [in the] minority."
Even as the court case progressed over the past six months and damaging evidence came to light, Thaksin became increasingly popular.
A onetime policeman who got his start in business by selling computers to his own department and ended up a telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin is worth an estimated $1.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Thais hope that he can do for the country what he has done for himself.
He has called for an ambitious plan to fix the economy, which has yet to recover fully from the regional crisis. Among his popular programs, he has pledged to improve health care and to give 1 million baht (about $22,000) to every village.
His supporters collected 1.4 million signatures on petitions opposing his removal and presented them to the court this week.
Legal experts believed that the evidence was so clear-cut that if the court based its decision on the law, it would have to find him guilty.
Thaksin joked earlier Friday about whether he should bring in a 10-wheel truck to move his belongings out of the prime minister's residence.
The verdict was announced late in the day, but the stock market still rose more than 4% on the news that Thaksin would not be forced from office.
Hundreds of supporters waiting outside the courthouse cheered when the verdict was announced.
"Today the clouds of uncertainty have left Thailand, which makes the country hopeful and determined to leap forward," Thaksin said. "I can start my work today without any worries. Forget the past, start the future."