Protesters are detained by policemen during a protest in central Bangkok on May 22, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately drop criminal charges against 11 student activists who peacefully expressed opposition to military rule, Human Rights Watch said today. 

On May 22, 2015, Thai authorities arrested more than 40 activists in Bangkok and other provinces who were holding peaceful rallies to mark the first anniversary of the coup by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta. This was the largest crackdown on dissidents since the NCPO seized power in May 2014.

“The prosecution of students for peaceful protests shows that the military junta has no intention of easing its oppressive rule,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Gagging public protests makes a mockery of the junta’s self-proclaimed commitment to return to democracy.”

Four students in Bangkok (Rangsiman Rome, Ratthapol Supasopon, Songtham Kaewpanpruk, and Chonthicha Jaengraew) and seven students in the northeastern Khon Kaen province (Jaturapak Boonpatararaksa, Apiwat Suntararak, Payu Bunsophon, Panupong Srithananuwat, Suwitcha Thipangkorn, Supachai Pukrongploy, and Wasan Sethsitthi) were charged with violating the junta’s ban on political activity and holding a public gathering of more than five people. They were ordered to report to the police on June 8 to acknowledge the charges. All of the students face trial in military court and could be imprisoned for one year and fined up to 20,000 baht (US$625).

On May 22, 2015, Human Rights Watch, together with many journalists, lawyers, and representatives of Thai human rights groups, witnessed soldiers in civilian clothes and police assaulting student activists during the dispersal of a peaceful rally at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center. The security forces beat, kicked, and slapped the demonstrators without provocation. Some members of the security forces lifted the students up and threw them on the ground. Others grabbed the students by their hair and dragged them away. Kaewpanpruk, one of the students facing charges, was sent to the hospital for emergency treatment after he was found lying unconscious on the ground.

Despite overwhelming evidence, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan denied that the authorities acted improperly and lashed out at the journalists and rights activists who asked questions about the incident. General Prawit told journalists at a news conference on May 27 that:

There was no crackdown, only minor scuffles when officials tried to control the situation. Did they [student activists] break the laws? Then they should not complain about what happened. They should not resist officials in the first place. Officials did not assault them. There is no need to talk about this anymore. We did not violate human rights of anyone.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised serious concerns about the use of violence by Thai authorities to disperse peaceful anti-coup rallies.

The NCPO replaced civilian courts with military tribunals for alleged crimes related to national security, sedition, and lese majeste (offending the monarchy). Individuals who violate the NCPO’s orders are also subject to prosecution in military courts. Hundreds of people, most of them political dissidents and critics of the NCPO, have been sent for trial in military courts since the May 2014 coup.

International human rights law prohibits governments from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts are functioning. The use of military courts in Thailand also fails to meet international fair trial standards under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a party. 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.

Thai authorities have an obligation to uphold the right to peaceful protest. International human rights law sets out that government measures to protect public safety may be justified only so long as they are provided by law, and are proportionate to the level of threat or legitimate objective to be achieved. In policing demonstrations, all members of the security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which provide that authorities shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force.

The interim constitution provides that members of the NCPO and anyone carrying out actions on behalf of the NCPO “shall be absolutely exempted from any wrongdoing, responsibility, and liabilities.”

“The junta uses arbitrary laws against critics to maintain its hold on power, but has made itself above the law even when the army or police commit human rights abuses,” Adams said. “Officials with unchecked powers and no fear of arrest have little reason to stop using violence against peaceful protesters. With more and more cases against peaceful protesters, Thailand descends deeper into dictatorship.”