Thai court sentences first anti-coup protester under junta rule

BANGKOK (AFP) - A Thai court Thursday passed a suspended prison sentence on an anti-coup activist for breaching a ban on political gatherings, his lawyer said, in the first protest-related verdict since the military takeover.

Weerayuth Kongkanathan, 49, was given a one-month suspended jail term after being found guilty of violating martial law by protesting against the coup launched by Thailand's army on May 22.

"He was found guilty of violating the order prohibiting political gatherings... the first one to be convicted under the NCPO (junta body) order," Pawinee Chumsri, one of the lawyers representing Weerayuth, told AFP.

Political assemblies of more than five people were banned under martial law declared by army chief Prayut Chan-o-Cha two days before he ousted the kingdom's caretaker government.

Weerayuth was detained by soldiers for protesting against the military takeover in the Thai capital Bangkok a day after the coup.

The city's Pathumwan Municipal Court sentenced him to two months in jail and imposed a fine of 6,000 baht ($185) - both of which were reduced by half when Weerayuth pleaded guilty.

The anti-coup activist was relieved to escape jail but vowed to continue resisting military rule, despite facing prison if he participates in further demonstrations.

"I will not stop, I have to avoid being arrested again," he said. "I am a democracy lover, why do I have to be afraid?" The Thai junta has suspended democracy and curtailed freedom of expression in the kingdom since coming to power, responding aggressively to any form of protest.

Rights groups Thursday called for Weerayuth's conviction and sentence to be expunged, warning that it set a dangerous precedent.

"The verdict sends an alarming message that peaceful protest is not tolerated in Thailand," Richard Bennett, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific Director, said in a statement.

"This is likely to be the first in a series of planned trials of people who have voiced dissent against the army's rule. We're calling for it to be the last." The coup follows years of political divisions between supporters of fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and a royalist establishment backed by parts of the military and judiciary.

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