5 Thai Pro-Democracy Protesters Charged with Threatening Queen

Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Bangkok
2021-03-31
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5 Thai Pro-Democracy Protesters Charged with Threatening Queen Ekachai Hongkangwan (left) and Bunkueanun Paothong (right) speak with reporters upon being released on bail after being charged with threatening Queen Suthida, in Bangkok, March 31, 2021.
[Wilawan Watcharasakwet/BenarNews]

Updated at 6:19 a.m. ET on 2021-03-31

A Thai criminal court indicted five pro-democracy demonstrators Wednesday on charges of threatening the queen by blocking her royal motorcade during a mass rally last year – the first prosecution of its kind in the country’s modern history, according to a lawyers’ group.

Ekachai Hongkangwan, Mahidol University student Bunkueanun Paothong, Suranart Paenprasert and two unidentified co-defendants pleaded not guilty at a Bangkok criminal court, Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, an attorney with the Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), a group representing the five, told reporters.

“The attorney general prosecuted Ekachai and four co-defendants. They pleaded not guilty and will fight the case as the court set April 26 for a pre-trial hearing to examine evidence,” Poonsuk said.

The TLHR, an NGO that represents political defendants, said the attorney general accused Ekachai, Bunkueanun and their co-defendants of arousing a crowd of pro-democracy protesters, which surrounded the royal limousine and blocked its path as it drove by.

Some water bottles were also thrown at the car transporting Queen Suthida and her stepson, Prince Dipangkorn, according to reports.

Section 110 of the Penal Code, which shields royals from being threatened or harmed, was “exercised for the first time in modern history,” TLHR said.

Under 110, “[w]hoever commits an act of violence against the Queen or Her liberty, the Heir-apparent or His liberty, or the Regent or his/her liberty, shall be punished with imprisonment for life or imprisonment of sixteen to twenty years. Whoever attempts to commit such offense shall be liable to the same punishment,” according to information posted on the Thailand Law Library, a website.

The five accused were all charged under this first clause of Section 110, TLHR said, citing prosecutors but without divulging more information.

People convicted under this law can also be punished with life in prison – or death – if such an act “is likely to endanger the life of the Queen,” the law also stipulates.

“The attorney general prosecuted Ekachai and four co-defendants. They pleaded not guilty and will fight the case as the court set Apr. 26 for a pre-trial hearing to examine evidence,” said Poonsuk, the lawyer from TLHR, which represents political defendants.

The court allowed the five to be released on bail amounts ranging from 200,000 baht (U.S. $6,396) to 300,000 baht (U.S. $9,594), he added.

“We affirm we are innocent. I and four co-defendants were falsely charged that we were attempting to violate the liberty of the queen and the heir, which was not the case,” Bunkueanun said.

According to the lawyers’ group, the Attorney General accused the five demonstrators of urging the crowd of thousands to block the road as the royal motorcade passed by the rally.

The protesters nearby gave the royals a three-fingered salute, inspired by “The Hunger Games” movie, to symbolize their resistance to the royals – an unprecedented happening in the country where the king is regarded as a demi-god, BenarNews reported at the time.

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters had gathered on that day, Oct. 14, to mark the 47th anniversary of a 1973 protest that led to the overthrow of the dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn.

BenarNews also reported then that the crowd was 8,000-10,000 strong, and the queen and her stepson were briefly trapped in their car amid the throng.

Ekachai and Bunkueanun were seen active near the motorcade, which the police guarded.

Co-defendant Suranart Paenprasert said they were not attempting to harm the convoy. 

“That day, everyone knew that we were there before [the motorcade arrived], crowd control police were putting in place strict security measures. … I believe we have solid witnesses and evidence, as well as reports from the media,” Suranart said before he entered the courtroom on Wednesday.

The U.S. State Department, in its 45th annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released Tuesday, reported on the arrest of Bunkueanun and two others as a result of the incident.

Bunkueanun said it boded well that he and the four others had been released on bail.

“I’m glad the court granted us bail; it’s a good sign. But it’s not the end, we will come to the court to fight the case,” Bunkueanun told reporters as his friends hugged him after his release. 

Pro-democracy demonstrators have held a series of rallies, beginning in mid-July last year, to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Chan-o-cha – the retired army chief who led the 2014 coup – a rewrite of the constitution, and a reform of the royal institution itself.

At least 18 demonstrators have been remanded for offenses ranging from sedition to Lese-Majeste since the protests began, according to TLHR.

Lese-Majeste, or Article 112 of the Penal Code, the nation’s strict anti-royal defamation law, carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison for each conviction. 

This report was updated to include information about which clause the five activists were charged under. 

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