Thai pro-democracy protesters acquitted of threatening queen

Wilawan Watcharasakwej
Thai pro-democracy protesters acquitted of threatening queen Student activist Bunkueanun Paothong (right), with activist Ekachai Hongkangwan, talks to reporters before leaving a criminal court in Bangkok, where they and three others were acquitted of charges related to impeding the motorcade of the Thai queen during pro-democracy demonstrations in 2020.
Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo

Updated at 11:27 a.m. ET on 2023-06-28

A Thai criminal court on Wednesday acquitted five pro-democracy demonstrators on charges of threatening the queen by blocking her motorcade during a rally in 2020, citing a lack of evidence and blaming police for failing to prepare proper passage for the royal limousine.

The case at Ratchada Criminal Court was brought under a little-used law that shields royals from being threatened or harmed, and can carry punishment of life in prison – or even death.

The verdict represented a rare victory for the youth-led pro-democracy movement, which has been targeted with offenses ranging from sedition to royal defamation since taking to the streets in mid-2020 to call for Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s resignation.

The attorney general had accused Ekachai Hongkangwan, Mahidol University student Bunkueanun Paothong, Suranart Paenprasert, Chanathip Chaiyayankgoon and Panupat Paiko of stirring up a crowd of protesters during a rally for democratic reform in Bangkok on October 14, 2020.

Prosecutors alleged the five defendants, aware the royal limousine was driving by, had urged protesters to surround it and block its path. Some water bottles were also thrown at the car transporting Queen Suthida and her stepson, Prince Dipangkorn, according to reports.

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

But the court found insufficient evidence the five planned to harm or impede the royal procession. It said the protesters, including the defendants, had not been informed by police that the motorcade was in the area. The group did not have access to confidential government information about its route, either.

The defendants were acquitted on all charges, including minor ones of blocking traffic.

After the verdict was read, Ekachai thanked the court for its decision.

“I believed all along that there is justice in the courts, even though many people do not believe they are transparent,” he said.

Activist Ekachai Hongkangwan argues with riot police near the Din Daeng intersection in Bangkok during a pro-democarcy protest, March 13, 2021. [Nava Sangthong/BenarNews]

It is unclear whether prosecutors would appeal the case.

The prosecution brought under Section 110 of the Penal Code was the first of its kind in the country’s modern history, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a group representing the five.

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. 

Sunai Phusuk, a senior analyst for Human Rights Watch, said the acquittal was the only reasonable result.

“The evidence and circumstances were not based on facts from the beginning,” he told BenarNews. “There should never have been proceedings under such a severe charge.”

Thailand was roiled by a series of mass protests in 2020-21 calling for the resignation of Prayuth – the retired army chief who led the 2014 coup – a rewrite of the constitution, and a reform of the royal institution itself.

Since July 2020, at least 250 were charged with royal defamation, according to the TLHR, eight of them are serving jail terms. 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.

Nontarat Phaicharoen contributed to this report. 


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