Thai military court frees student activists

Members of the New Democracy Movement and supporters holding up pictures of the detained students during a rally outside the military court in Bangkok yesterday.
Members of the New Democracy Movement and supporters holding up pictures of the detained students during a rally outside the military court in Bangkok yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

A military court in Thailand has ordered the release of 14 students from the newly formed group New Democracy Movement, held in detention since June 26.

The three-man tribunal declined a bid by a police prosecutor to extend the students' 12-day detention by a further 12 days.

But while the release is unconditional, charges remain against the 14 - one woman and 13 men in their 20s- and they will still face a military court.

The main charge is sedition, which carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison. A second lesser charge of illegal assembly carries a fine and a few months in jail.

The sedition charge is the harshest against pro-democracy protesters since the military seized power in May last year.

AVOIDING A HOT POTATO

This (the release) is simply to divert pressure from inside Thailand and abroad.

MR SUNAI PHASUK, Thailand researcher for the independent New York-based Human Rights Watch

The case has become somewhat of a hot potato for the junta, drawing wide attention, with statements of concern from Thai rights groups and academics, as well as the United Nations and European Union.

"This (the release) is simply to divert pressure from inside Thailand and abroad," said Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for the independent Human Rights Watch.

The New Democracy Movement is an umbrella group formed last month, bringing together students and fresh graduates from Bangkok, the north-east and the south.

Seven of the 14 detained are members of the Dao Din group from the north-eastern province of Kon Kaen - law students and graduates who give legal advice to poor villagers in land rights and environmental battles with powerful political-business interests.

The 14 had refused to apply for bail, signalling that they did not recognise the junta's legitimacy. Behind the scenes, sources say, the military had been trying to persuade them to do it, so that bail could be granted with conditions.

The junta has said it has evidence that the students have backers.

Mr Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University and an adviser to deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan, insisted that "this no negotiation, no tolerance behaviour... is not only from the students".

It is a suggestion that members of the Dao Din laugh off. "The army wants us to think inside a box. If you think outside the box, you are a traitor," said student Sasiprapa Raisanguan, 22.

Representatives of at least seven foreign embassies were at the military court yesterday to witness the proceedings. A lawyer for the students made the case for their release, and some of the students also made statements.

In the afternoon, the 14 were taken back to Klong Prem prison to be formally released, but learnt that the 12-day detention period ended at midnight so they could not be released until this morning.

Observers cautioned that they may be detained again on other charges laid by local police.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2015, with the headline 'Thai military court frees student activists'. Print Edition | Subscribe