Thai court frees leaders of coup anniversary protest on bail

Demonstrators attempt to break through a phalanx of police outside Thammasat University during a protest to mark the fourth year of junta rule in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 22, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (REUTERS, AFP) - A Thai court on Thursday (May 24) freed on bail a group of activists who led a protest in Bangkok on the anniversary of a 2014 coup, forbidding them from holding another illegal protest, the group's lawyer said.

Tuesday's protest highlighted concern over the military's prolonged rule and repeated delays in general elections originally promised in 2015, which Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha this week said would be held in 2019. But his timetable for polls has slipped several times and his opponents are unconvinced elections will be held soon.

The suspects included protest leaders Rangsiman Rome, Ekachai Hongkangwan and Sirawith Seritiwat - perennial thorns in the side of the military which toppled the civilian government on May 22, 2014.

The junta has since banned protests and political gatherings of more than five people.

"May dictatorship be destroyed. May democracy flourish," one of the protest leaders, Rangsiman, 26, shouted as he walked into court on Thursday.

The 15 pro-democracy activists had been in police custody since the protest, when most of them surrendered to police, although a handful were forcibly taken away, Reuters reporters said at the time.

"The court agreed to release them on condition that they don't participate in political gatherings that are illegal again," the lawyer, Kisadang Nutjarat, told Reuters. Bail was set at 100,000 baht ($3,123) for each activist.

Police had earlier asked for the men to be held in custody for 12 days during their investigations.

The protest on Tuesday was small by the standards of Thailand's rambunctious street politics, but still dominated the headlines in a country wearying of junta rule.

A few hundred people tried unsuccessfully to march to the seat of government in Bangkok to call for promised elections - a poll which the junta keeps pushing back.

On top of sedition, the activists were also charged with the "illegal gathering of more than 10 people, obstructing traffic and causing a disturbance", Pawinee Chumsri, of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights who are representing the group, told AFP.

Sedition is punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison.

Large sections of society - including the Bangkok middle class - have tired of the rule by a conservative military that has intruded into the lives of ordinary people whilst overseeing a widening of the kingdom's rich-poor wealth gap.

Critics say in four years the junta has been opaque in its financial dealings, seeded wide patronage networks and failed to address rampant corruption - despite seizing power from the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra vowing to do so.

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