Four Thailand activists to face military court on charges of holding an illegal gathering

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Four Thai activists are to face military court on Monday on charges of violating junta orders banning public gatherings in what a rights group called a "landmark case" that could stir indignation at strict military rule.

The four men are members of a group called Resistant Citizen, which has held demonstrations around the Thai capital in defiance of the military government which came to power after a coup in May. "It is a landmark case. Hundreds have been sent to military court since the coup but this case is an outright persecution of peaceful expression of dissent," said Mr Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch.

The four are Arnon Numpa, 30, a rights lawyer, Sirawith Seritiwat, 24, a student, Punsak Srithep, 48, an activist whose son was killed in a 2010 army crackdown on anti-government protesters and Wannakiet Choosuwan, 36, a taxi driver. They held a pro-election demonstration in February and set up mock voting tables. Arnon also faces additional charges under a tough computer crime laws for Facebook messages he posted.

Mr Sunai said the case against them was a direct violation of their right to freedom of assembly and it would likely stir disgruntlement with the military government. "The case is an important benchmark. Students have started to push back and are calling for a gathering at Thammasat University to oppose military courts."

Under martial law, which has been in place since May, gatherings of more than five people are banned. "All four of us will be sent to military court today and, if the military court accepts the case, then we will ask for bail," Arnon told Reuters.

Dozens of supporters showed up at a Bangkok police station where the four activists were interrogated, according to a Reuters reporter. Some handed the men red roses.

Since taking power, the junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, has issued directives that have largely stifled dissent. It has said it has no immediate plans to lift martial law.

Thailand has been divided for a decade by rivalry between populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the royalist and military establishment that sees the self-exiled Thaksin as a threat to the status quo.

The military seized power after months of at times violent protests against a government led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

The military government has promised to hold an election early next year.