BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's police on Tuesday said they had dismantled an anti-monarchy network that published audio recordings defaming the royal family following the arrest of its ringleader.
Hasadin Uraipraiwan, the alleged leader of a group calling itself the Banpodj Network, had been on the run for nearly two weeks, with the police offering a widely publicised 200,000 baht (S$8,300) reward for his capture.
He was tracked down to a hotel in Bangkok on Monday night and charged under the country's strict and controversial lese majeste legislation, a senior police official said. "Hasadin is the mastermind of this gang but we found no link with other groups," national police spokesman Lieutenant-General Prawut Thavornsiri told reporters, adding he had been handed over to military custody.
Local media reports said Hasadin had been affiliated with the "red-shirt" movement loyal to fugitive premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who was dumped from office as prime minister shortly before last May's coup.
Police last week charged a Red Shirt member with lese majeste for allegedly forwarding a widely circulated forged document on the revered king's health, which went viral.
The movement has also fallen under official suspicion for a small pipe bomb attack outside a Bangkok shopping mall earlier this month.
In response, red shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan accused the junta of trying to provoke the movement into a "fight" by pointing the finger of blame at them.
The group - that falls under the umbrella of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) - has been a powerful force in Thailand's near-decade of sometimes deadly political turmoil.
The Thai authorities say the Bandpodj Network distributed audio recordings on CDs that insulted the Thai monarchy.
Six people allegedly belonging to the network were arrested late last month - but Hasadin evaded police until Monday night.
The group's Facebook page, which has more than 100,000 followers, describes itself as a place where "the mask is ripped from the face of Thai high-society and the elite".
Both Thai and international media must heavily self-censor when covering Thailand's monarchy, including the contentious lese majeste rules.
Even repeating details of the charges could mean breaking the law, known as article 112 of the penal code, which states that anyone convicted of insulting the King, Queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
Rights groups say there has been a rise in both charges and convictions under Thailand's royal slur law since the army seized power, with many observers saying that the law has been politicised to target opponents of the coup.