A Thai court acquitted six pro-democracy activists Friday of sedition and illegal-assembly charges over a protest last year when they demanded a general election, which the military government at the time had already postponed repeatedly.
The Criminal Court in Bangkok ruled that the accused had no intent to incite violence when they demonstrated in February 2018, but were merely urging the National Council for Peace and Order– the official name of the junta – to hold polls in November that year, as NCPO chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha had promised.
“From audio tape transcription, the defendants did not use foul language or attempt to instigate violence or hurt officials,” a judge at the Ratchada court said.
“Given the circumstances, principles of checks-and-balance and freedom of expression to criticize a government is democratically legitimate,” the judge said. “Therefore, the six defendants are not guilty of sedition. The verdict is acquittal.”
The six activists – Chonthicha Jangrew, Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat, Nuttaa Mahahtana, Anon Numpa, Sukrit Piensuwan and Kan Pongprapapan – were arrested and charged after they led a rally near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on Feb. 10, 2018. They were free on bail.
Sirawith was previously arrested and detained in 2016 with three other activists on charges of attempting to protest against alleged corruption in a park built by the military. A military court would later release them, saying there was no reason for their detention because the punishment for defying the ban on demonstrations was minor.
In clearing the six activists of charges that they violated the ban on political gatherings of more than five people, the Criminal Court said Friday that the NCPO had been dissolved after the country installed a civilian government two months ago. The long-awaited general election, which saw a pro-junta alliance win a parliamentary majority, was held on March 24.
The six were arrested last year as the junta, which seized power in a May 2014 coup, cracked down on critics and curbed basic freedoms, rights groups said.
Thailand marked an official end to five years of military rule in July this year, when Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and his cabinet were sworn in by the Thai king, although the new government retained some of the junta’s strict executive orders.
Prayuth led the coup that toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, and then installed himself as prime minister and head of the NCPO.
Activist: Election a junta-scripted ‘play’
After the court issued its verdict, Chonthicha said she was glad to be acquitted, but urged foreign governments to keep an eye on the political situation in her country.
“Despite the elections, Thailand is not democratic,” she told reporters outside the court, adding that more than 130 people were being prosecuted for participating in peaceful protests, which called for an election.
Chonthicha was among Thai activists who visited Washington this week to meet with American diplomats and Congressional members and tell them that Bangkok was still in the grips of an authoritarian government, despite this year’s general election. She returned to Thailand to hear the verdict.
“It was not really an election,” Yingcheep Atchanont, a program manager for iLaw, a civil and political rights research and advocacy group based in Bangkok, told BenarNews during the group’s visit to the U.S. capital. “It was a play, and the NCPO wrote the script.”
On July 26, the United States certified Thailand as a democracy and notched up military sales to its oldest ally in Asia after the polls.
In the U.S. certification, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “a democratically elected government had taken office in Thailand.”
The certification was published in the Federal Register as required under the Foreign Assistance Act. The law bars American security forces from cooperating with nations where an elected government has been toppled through a coup.
Also in July, the State Department approved the sale of 60 infantry carrier vehicles to Thailand for a cost of U.S. $175 million (5.4 billion Thai Baht), a Pentagon statement said. Last week, the Thai military took delivery of 10 of those Stryker vehicles.
Yingcheep questioned the criteria or information used by Washington to arrive at its certification.
Sirikan Charoensiri, of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, said Washington should also take note that Thai political exiles in Laos and Cambodia had gone missing, and dissidents from those countries who fled to Thailand have been forcibly returned, in cases documented by Human Rights Watch and other groups.
“Thailand has been a bad example to its neighbors,” she told BenarNews.
Kate Beddall in Washington contributed to this report.