Arnon Numpa (L), a 30-year-old rights lawyer, and Sirawith Seritiwat, 24, a student, leaves a police station for the military court in Bangkok on March 16, 2015.

(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately drop charges against four activists who peacefully expressed opposition to military rule. 

On March 16, 2015, Bangkok police charged four activists for violating the ban on political activity and holding a public gathering of more than five people. Those charged were: Sirawit Serithiwat, a student activist from Thammasat University; Pansak Srithep, a pro-democracy activist and the father of a boy killed by the military during the 2010 political violence; Anon Numpa, a human rights lawyer; and Wannakiet Chusuwan, a pro-democracy activist and taxi driver. After being charged, the four activists were immediately sent to the Bangkok Military Court, where they face trial with no right to appeal.

“The Thai military junta should immediately stop arresting and prosecuting peaceful critics and end the trial of civilians in military courts,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Every arbitrary arrest shows Thailand descending deeper into dictatorial rule.”

Thai authorities arrested the four activists on February 14 at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center while they were holding a mock election and calling for martial law to be revoked. If found guilty they could be jailed for one year and fined up to 20,000 baht (US$625). Anon also faces an additional charge under the Computer Crime Act for criticizing the military authorities on his Facebook page, which could result in up to 25 years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 baht ($15,625).

The four activists were arrested less than a week after Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, publicly pledged to return Thailand to democratic civilian rule through free and fair elections as soon as possible.

The NCPO continues to rule Thailand under the Martial Law Act of 1914 and has severely repressed fundamental rights and freedoms that are essential for the restoration of democracy, Human Rights Watch said.

Three days after seizing power on May 22, 2014, the NCPO issued its 37th order, which replaced civilian courts with military tribunals for some offenses—including articles 107 to 112, which concern lese majeste crimes, and crimes regarding national security and sedition as stipulated in articles 113 to 118. Individuals who violate the NCPO’s orders are also subject to trial by military court. At least 700 people, most of them political dissidents, have been sent to trials in military courts since the coup.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Thailand is obligated to uphold and take measures to ensure basic fair trial rights. Governments are prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts can still function. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, has stated in its General Comment on the right to a fair trial that “the trial of civilians in military or special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned.” This is particularly problematic in Thailand where every element of military courts functions within the Defense Ministry’s chain of command, which has been controlled by the NCPO since the coup.

“The rolling crackdown on civil and political rights in Thailand continues without letup,” Adams said. “Promises to respect human rights and restore democracy are constantly contradicted by the junta’s actions.”