BANGKOK: Thai police Friday charged 14 students with “sedition”, a lawyer said, which could see them jailed for seven years, after they staged a peaceful rally against the ruling junta’s sweeping curbs on civil liberties. The pro-democracy campaigners from universities in Bangkok and the country’s northeast are among the few public faces of dissent that remain in Thailand since the military seized power last year.
The severe charges follow a peaceful protest at the capital’s Democracy Monument Thursday when the students made impassioned speeches and sang songs urging an end to junta rule, cheered on by dozens of supporters.
Police unusually held back from the rally, which also drew dozens of journalists, but arrested the students late Friday afternoon, hours after they encircled a house where they had been seeking refuge from arrest.
Pawinee Chumsri, a lawyer representing some of the activists, told AFP they were each charged with “sedition” under section 116 of Thailand’s criminal code, an offence that carries up to seven years in jail.
She previously understood they would be charged for illegal assembly — political gatherings and criticism of the junta are banned under the regime — an offence carrying a lesser penalty of up to six months in prison and a fine of 10,000 baht (US$300).
“The 14 students have now been charged with article 116 which carries up to seven years in prison,” Pawinee said, adding that they would likely be taken to the capital’s military court and imprisoned later Friday.
Thai police did not immediately respond to an AFP request to confirm the charges.
The students arrested Friday — part of groups staging small but symbolic acts of protest against the military regime — had been involved in anti-coup protests last month marking one year since the army takeover.
Those protests in Bangkok were quashed when police dragged away and held overnight dozens of students at the protest in angry scenes.
Seven of the 14 arrested study in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen. They also staged an anti-coup rally last month and have been dubbed the “Magnificent Seven” on social media.
On Wednesday, one of the Bangkok activists from last month was charged with illegal assembly for that protest. The students charged Friday had also gathered at a downtown police station to register their complaints against maltreatment by authorities in May.
Thailand’s generals claim the May 2014 coup was essential to restore order to the country after months of often violent protests against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
But opponents say it was the latest manoeuvre by Bangkok-based royalist elites, backed by large swathes of the military, to scupper democracy in the kingdom.