Thai Pro-Democracy Protest Leader Freed on Bail

Subel Rai Bhandari and Nontarat Phaicharoen
2022.02.24
Bangkok
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Thai Pro-Democracy Protest Leader Freed on Bail Sureerat Chiwarak hugs her son, Thai pro-democracy activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, after his release from more than six months in custody at the Bangkok Special Prison, Feb. 24, 2022.
Suntorn Chongcharoen/BenarNews

Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, a Thai anti-government protest leader, was released on bail Thursday after spending more than six months in custody on royal defamation and other charges, his lawyers said, while a half-dozen other prominent pro-democracy figures remain in jail.

Parit was freed from the Bangkok Special Prison in the evening after a criminal court in the Thai capital granted him bail earlier in the day so he could resume his studies at Thammasat University. He faces 43 charges including sedition and Lese-Majeste, a law that makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the monarchy, and carries penalties of up to 15 years in prison for each conviction.

“I feel the freedom and thank all for giving me moral support in the past six months of my incarceration,” Parit said upon his release.

“We are prisoners of conscience. We did not do anything wrong, we are not criminals, but our freedom was deprived. And people know why it was so,” he said as he held a white rose and flashed a three-fingered salute, a protest sign inspired by the “Hunger Games” movies.

Parit hugged his mother, Sureerat Chiwarak, after emerging from the prison. Last year, she had shaved her head and stood outside the court in protest as a response to the judges turning down her request for her son’s bail on humanitarian grounds.

“Penguin is not only my son, but he belongs to you as well,” Sureerat said Thursday as dozens of supporters of her 23-year-old student-leader son surrounded her.

“I am happy to have him back. First, I don’t want him to be sent back to jail, and second, I’m concerned about his safety,” she said.

Parit, who has been in detention on and off since October 2020, went on a 57-day hunger strike last year.

Defense lawyers who posted bail of 200,000 baht (U.S. $6,093) said the court had granted Parit a temporary release, until May 24, to resume his studies.

“We lodged a bail request citing his education needs with a letter from the dean of the faculty of political science [of Thammasat University], and he needs to appear for examinations from late February to March,” Krisadang Nutcharus, a lawyer from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), said outside the prison.

Another lawyer said Parit, who faces nine Lese-Majeste charges, was released under strict conditions, including abstaining from all political activities or posting political messages on social media.

He must wear an electronic ankle monitor at all times, remain at home between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and cannot leave the country without permission.

Student protests

Since July 2020, a largely youth-led movement has issued three demands – for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to step down, the constitution be rewritten and the monarchy be reformed. At its peak, rallies drew thousands of demonstrators.

In October 2020, Prayuth announced an emergency decree to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, Human Rights Watch alleged the government was using it as “a pretext for a crackdown on peaceful demonstrations.” 

Since then, protest leaders have been arrested and at least six activists, including human-rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, remain in jail on Lese-Majeste and other charges, according to TLHR.

The lawyers’ group said it had documented 3,448 charges brought against 1,767 people linked to the protests between July 18, 2020, and the end of last month. At least 169 people, including 13 juveniles, are facing Lese-Majeste charges.

220224-TH-released-inside.jpg
Parit Chiwarak (left) and his mother, Sureerat Chiwarak, give three-finger salutes after he was released from the Bangkok Special Prison, Feb. 24, 2022. [Suntorn Chongcharoen/BenarNews]

Bencharat Sae Chua, a lecturer at Mahidol University in Bangkok, said “the institution of monarchy is a taboo topic,” and the protests addressing “the monarchy explicitly and publicly … created a big stir in the country.

“It is not a surprise then that the youth-led movements are perceived as a threat by the establishment in Thai society,” she said during an online lecture on Tuesday organized by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Justice in Southeast Asia Lab.

“The most direct state retaliation has come in the form of arrest, judicial harassment and violence against the protesters in general and targeted against the leaders who make the most noise in particular,” she said.

Bencharat said the prosecution alleged Parit delivered a speech at a November 2020 protest that intended to distort information about the king.

“The prosecutor said this would cause unrest in the kingdom, and the people will lose respect, which is a crime against the king,” she said.

Parit is the fourth activist in recent weeks to be given temporary freedom from prison. Panupong “Mike” Jadnok and Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa were released earlier this month and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul was released in December. Bencharat said their bails carry strict restrictions, as well.

“If you speak out, if you protest, you go back to prison. So, I think that’s the message that they want,” she told BenarNews. “They grant you the bail, not because they want to give you freedom, but they want to put this condition on you, the leader, and on the protesters.”

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