A military court has ordered the release of 14 Thai students who were detained almost two weeks for participating in peaceful anti-government protests, but they still may be prosecuted for sedition, lawyers for the group said.
A military court on Tuesday ordered the release of the young activists – 13 men and a woman –
when it rejected a request from police to hold them for another 12 days, pending trial.
“They will be released by Wednesday morning because the current custody detention remains in effect until this upcoming midnight,” Sasinan Thamthitinand, one of the attorneys representing the activists, told BenarNews by phone on Tuesday.
“The officers at Samranraj station police requested another pre-trial detention but a lawyer and students also requested the police motion be dropped. The military court dismissed the police’s request,” added Sasinan, who works for the advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
“The charges are not dropped, pending the order to prosecute or not, which will be made by military prosecutor,” the group said in a statement Tuesday.
The 14 were arrested on June 26 for taking part in a series of protests marking the first anniversary of a military coup that toppled the civilian-led government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014.
Each of the activists was charged with sedition under Section 116 of the Criminal Code as well as violating a ban on political gatherings instituted by the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) – the junta’s official name.
In April, the council lifted martial law but replaced it with absolute power by invoking Article 44 of the interim constitution. That clause gives the military sweeping powers, including censoring the press or banning public gatherings of five or more people.
If the case goes to trial and they are convicted, the activists could face years in prison. The sedition charge carries a maximum sentence of seven years, and the charge of violating the NCPO’s public assembly ban carries up to six months.
‘They are free’
After Tuesday’s court session in Bangkok, the activists’ head lawyer, Krisadang Nutcharas, said the students had the right to go back out into the streets and protest again.
“They are free, they can go wherever they want because they are presumed innocent,” he told reporters outside the military courthouse.
“[Their] unconditioned release enables the students to continue the campaign, it’s their rights,” he added. “The government shall not prevent them from doing so, and they don’t need to report to the military court because they are not obligated by the court order now.”
The students were identified as Rangsiman Rome, Wasant Sadesit, Songtham Kaewpanphruek, Payu Boonsopon, Apiwat Suntararak, Rattapol Supasophon, Supachai Pookhlongploy, Apisit Sapnapaphan, Panupong Sritananuwat, Suvicha Pitungkorn, Pakorn Areekul, Chatupat Boonyapatraksa, Pornchai Yuanyee, and Chonticha Chaengreo.
Government officials, however, warned that the case was still not over for the 14.
“Even though they will be released, it doesn’t mean the case is concluded,” the Associated Press quoted a deputy governmental spokesman, Sansern Kaewkamnerd, as saying.
PM: ‘They should have learnt the lesson’
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha also reportedly reacted to Tuesday’s decision by the military court.
“The military court handed down a release of 14 students. It’s up to the law and the court has mercy, but they [the students] need to think if they will get away with it again,” Prayuth said, according to Wassana Nanuam, a military affairs reporter for the Bangkok Post who posted the comments on her personal Facebook page.
“They should have learnt the lesson to not do it again,” she quoted him as saying.
The junta’s decision to bring a sedition charge against the 14 drew protests from the United Nations, European Union and human rights groups.
“Thailand’s junta should immediately stop arresting and prosecuting student-activists,” Brad Adams, Asia director for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement issued a day after the 14 were arrested.
“While insisting they aren’t dictators, the Thai generals have used the military courts as a central feature for their crackdown against peaceful criticism and dissent.”