Four Thailand activists charged in military court over anti-coup protest

BANGKOK (AFP) - Four Thai men were charged over an anti-coup protest in a military court in Bangkok on Monday, activists said, as dozens of students rallied outside in defiance of martial law in the junta-ruled nation.

Around 40 students chanted slogans in support of the accused outside the court in the capital's historic heart to protest against the use of military courts to try civilians.

The four men, including one student, were each charged with breaching the ban on gatherings during a peaceful demonstration in Bangkok last month, said Anon Nampa, one of the accused who also works for the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. They face up to one year in jail and a 20,000 baht (S$8,460) fine if convicted, he added.

"We have each been charged under the law against the gathering of more than five people - now we have been released," said Anon. The four must next report to the court on 27 March.

Pro-democracy student activists rallied outside the court to support the accused after mobilising at Bangkok's liberal Thammasat University, holding placards saying "Civilians must not be tried in a military court" and "No more dictatorship in Thailand".

"This is harming our human rights. We don't want people to be tried in a military court," economics student Sukrid Peansuwan, 21, told AFP at the campus rally.

A university lecturer who did not want to be named said she was supporting the students as "Thailand has come too far to go back to tyranny".

"Seeking democracy and justice is not a crime," she told AFP.

The four anti-coup protesters were arrested, and later released on bail, after a Valentine's Day protest in central Bangkok where activists handed out roses and copies of George Orwell's anti-authoritarian novel 1984.

Amnesty International condemned the charges in a statement released on Monday, saying they should never have been levelled.

"They should not be placed in front of a military court, where they will not face a fair trial, and they should be permitted to freely express their opinions and protest peacefully," said Mr Rupert Abbott, Amnesty's Research Director for South-east Asia and the Pacific.

Thailand has seen a rapid erosion of civil liberties since the army seized power last May with the army banning political gatherings of more than five people, censoring the media and arresting and detaining opponents of junta rule.

May's military coup was the latest twist in Thailand's decade-long political crisis, which broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite - backed by parts of the military and judiciary - against urban working-class voters and farmers from the country's north.

The junta says it will hold fresh elections in early 2016 once reforms to tackle corruption and curb the power of political parties are codified in a new constitution.

But the draft charter has already raised deep concerns in the kingdom and critics doubt whether it will bridge Thailand's deep political divisions.