BANGKOK • Thai election authorities have filed their first charge under a law banning campaigning and debate before a referendum on a controversial new Constitution, as the junta tightens its grip on free speech.
The broadly worded legislation, which came into force last week, mandates up to 10 years in prison for criticising the military's new Charter or "influencing voters" in the run-up to the Aug 7 poll.
It will be Thailand's first return to the ballot box since the generals toppled an elected government two years ago and banned all political activities.
Yesterday, a senior official from the election agency filed the first charge under the law against a group that posted Facebook messages aimed at "inciting voters", police said.
"I want this case to serve as an example, that from now on, criticising (the Charter) must be done in a polite manner," Election Commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn said on television after filing the charge.
Police said the group was based in the north-eastern province of Khon Kaen - a stronghold of a political bloc opposed to the junta - but refused to release the organisation's name.
Criticism of the military regime - often posted on social media - has landed scores of activists and former politicians in detention over the past two years, attracting frequent condemnation from rights groups and United Nations agencies.
On Tuesday, Thai human rights lawyers said at least eight people had been "abducted" by military officers across the country.
A military spokesman told Agence France-Presse that a total of 10 people had been arrested on computer crime charges, another broadly worded law used to curb dissent.
Critics accuse the military of seeking to entrench its political influence through the proposed Constitution, which would give a junta-appointed senate authority to check the power of elected lawmakers for a five-year transitional period.
The senate, which will have seats reserved for military officers, could also have a say in choosing the prime minister if voters approve that power in the referendum ballot.
The military-appointed Charter drafters insist their work will keep out corrupt politicians and provide a "safety valve" if Thailand topples into a political crisis.
The kingdom has been torn by rounds of often-deadly mass protests since billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by the military in 2006.
His supporters say the junta is bent on dismantling the Shinawatras' powerful political faction, which has won every national election in the past decade but is hated by a military-allied elite.