Thai court allows release of detained student protesters

Messages calling for the release of 14 Thai students held for anti-coup protests seen at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre.
Messages calling for the release of 14 Thai students held for anti-coup protests seen at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre.PHOTO: EPA

  A military court in Thailand has rejected a move to extend by 12 days the detention of 14 students charged with sedition.  

The students - 13 men and one woman, with an average age of around 22 - were being taken back from the court in Thailand's Ministry of Defence complex near the historic Grand Palace, to Klong Prem prison, to be formally released in the afternoon.

But they still face the charge - which carries a jail term of seven years - and will still face trial in a military court. Some also face a lesser charge of illegal assembly.

''The decision is not to extend the pre trial detention'' said Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for the independent, New York based Human Rights Watch. "This is simply to divert pressure from inside Thailand and abroad.''

The sediton charge under Article 116 of the penal code, is the harshest laid against pro-democracy protesters since the military seized power in May 2014. The military has insisted that under its rule, the trial must be in a military court.

The 14 are part of the New Democracy Movement - an umbrella group formed last month bringing together students from Bangkok, the north east, and also the south. While still very small, it is the first student democracy movement in Thailand in some 20 years.  

 ''The army sees this as the first fire that must put it out before it spreads'' Mr Sunai said. 

The students had already spent 12 days in detention - the maximum allowable before being produced in court. They had refused to apply for bail, signalling that they did not recognise the legitimacy of the junta which seized power in May 2014.

''They still do not recognise the authority of the military junta," a member of their legal team told journalists immediately after the court decision.

A small group of around 50 supporters of the students - most students themselves from various universities in Bangkok and elsewhere - gathered outside one of the barricaded entrances of the ministry in the morning, shouting pro-democracy slogans.

The case has become somewhat of a hot potato for the junta, drawing wide attention, with statements of concern from the United Nations, the European Union, and a slew of Thai rights groups and academics. Small pro-student demonstrations have been taking place every day in Bangkok and even overseas in front of Thai embassies and consulates. 

Representatives of several foreign embassies were at the military court on Tuesday morning, and allowed to witness the proceedings by turns in the small room. The media was not allowed entry. 

nirmal@sph.com.sg