Human Rights Watch (HRW) says it wants Thai authorities to drop charges against dozens of activists who appeared at a police station Friday in response to summons over their demonstration calling for government elections in November.
Earlier this week, police in Bangkok’s Pathumwan district charged seven pro-democracy activists with sedition and defying a ban on public gatherings for leading a demonstration that drew about 100 people to a corner of the Siam metro station.
Since then, 32 others were charged with breaching the public gathering law by failing to seek advanced approval and assembling within 150 meters (492 feet) of a palace of Princess Sirindhorn.
Police agreed to delay their actual surrender before a judge to next week to give the suspects time to make bail arrangements to keep themselves out of jail.
“Human Rights Watch has issued a statement on its stance this morning asking the Thai police to drop all charges, be they sedition charge or defying the NCPO order. The cases must stop at the police level,” Sunai Phasuk, a Thai HRW researcher told BenarNews.
“What happened causes concerns because the NCPO said it is paving a way for elections this year, but any political activities are disallowed,” he said referring to the junta government by its official acronym, the National Council for Peace and Order. “It hints that the elections would not be democratically free and fair.”
The demonstration, on Jan. 27, followed public comments by two deputy prime ministers that despite an earlier pledge from Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the election could be postponed until early next year.
On Tuesday, Prayuth said he could not give a specific date.
“I beg for some more time to lay a foundation for the country, for how long, it would depend on the laws. Don’t feel desperate in me and the NCPO. I beg you for your understanding,” he said at the time.
Previously, the NCPO postponed elections at least four times since seizing power in a military coup in May 2014 even as junta leaders vowed to put Thailand back on a path to democracy.
“By prosecuting activists for peacefully protesting military rule, Thailand’s junta shows just how unwilling it is to ease its political repression,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia director. “With each arbitrary charge against dissenters and critics, the junta makes a mockery of its promises to restore democracy to Thailand.”
A lawyer representing the suspects at the police station said about 30 had responded to the summons on Friday.
“[They] came to show that they did not break the laws as charged and are willing to go through the proceedings and won’t escape,” said Pawinee Chumsri, a lawyer at Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
She said police agreed to delay proceedings until Feb. 8 to allow the suspects to prepare for bail bonds, which could range from 10,000 baht (U.S. $318) to 200,000 baht ($6,358).
A sedition conviction carries a maximum seven-year sentence while a public gathering conviction carries a maximum six-month sentence, Pawinee said. Thailand’s strict Public Gathering Act bans gatherings of more than five people.
Nuttaa Mahattana, one of the seven charged with sedition and defying the junta order, said she expected police would try to jail her and the others because they had mentioned Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister who oversees security affairs.
In most cases, those who receive summons only have to show up at summons to acknowledge the charge and be fingerprinted, she said.
“The police seeking to put us behind bars was not a surprise,” Nuttaa told reporters. “They want to jail us all, so we decided to postpone our surrender.”
Since the May 2014 coup, at least 64 people have been charged with sedition and at least 82 have been charged with violating Lese-Majeste, Thailand’s strict law against royal defamation, according to statistics compiled by iLaw, a local human rights NGO.