Police in Thailand are holding a 14-year-old boy and five other people on suspicion of burning a portrait of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and violating the country’s strict royal defamation laws, officials and human rights groups said Wednesday.
The Thai military arrested the six suspects in northeastern Khon Kaen province about a week ago and later transferred them to police custody, a policeman assigned to the area told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
The six, who include two other teenagers and two suspects age 20, were charged with arson and violating section 112 of the criminal code, the country’s royal defamation law which is known as Lese-Majeste.
“They were detained for more than seven days. We had to bring them out for interrogation and put them right back into detention,” the officer said Wednesday in a phone interview.
Scores of people have been arrested on suspicion of violating Lese-Majeste during the three years since the military seized power in a coup and later imposed restrictions on free speech and public gatherings. Under the law, those convicted of posting online content deemed as offending the monarchy or committing other perceived slights against Thai royals can face 15 years in prison.
In the case in Khon Kaen, police identified the suspects as Abhisit Chailee, 14; Jirayut Sinpho, 18; Ratthathammanoon Srihabutr, 20; Akkharapong Ayukong, 18; Settha Thepnarong, 20; and Preecha Ngamdee, 45. All six are residents of Chonnabot, a district in Khon Kaen.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Abhisit and three others have been in custody since May 15 while police said others were detained on May 18.
Military authorities transferred the suspects to a detention facility at the 11th Army Circle Camp in Bangkok for questioning without access to legal counsel or their families, HRW alleged in a statement issued Tuesday when it demanded the 14-year-old’s immediate release.
“The secret detention of a 14-year-old boy in a Thai military camp should set off alarm bells, especially since no improvements have come following past reports of military abuse,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.
“None of the four youths arrested should have been denied access to a judge and placed in an incommunicado military detention, whatever the charge against them.”
Sorawut Wongsaranon, a spokesman for Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a local NGO, told BenarNews it was trying to contact the detainees’ relatives to provide legal aid.
“We have not seen them yet but have sought information in the Isan [northeast] region,” Sorawut said.
Police said the suspects confessed to being hired for 200 baht (U.S. $5.80) to burn the portrait of the king who died in October 2016 after ruling Thailand for 70 years.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters that the person responsible for hiring the suspects might be living outside the country.
“Adults should not support children doing such a thing,” Prayuth said, pointing out that groups could blame Thailand for human rights abuses and child abuse.
He said there was a network that would hire people to commit such acts.
Since Prayuth took control of the government following a bloodless coup on May 22, 2014, more than 80 people have been arrested for allegedly violating Lese-Majeste.
The junta-backed National Legislative Assembly has also passed other laws aimed at gagging dissent in the country.