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The Bangkok Criminal Court acquitted six pro-democracy activists who had been charged with illegal assembly and sedition in 2018 on September 20, 2019. © 2019 Nuttaa Mahattana

(New York) – Bangkok’s Criminal Court acquitted six prominent pro-democracy activists in an important verdict for protecting free expression in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today. The court ruled that a 2018 rally demanding a free and fair election was a peaceful exercise of fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Thai constitution.

“The Thai government should never have put activists on trial for peacefully calling for a free and fair election in the first place,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The court’s acquittal of the six pro-democracy activists will hopefully discourage the authorities from pursuing other criminal cases against people critical of military rule.”

On September 20, 2019, the Bangkok Criminal Court acquitted Nuttaa Mahattana, Chonthicha Jangrew, Sirawith Seritiwat, Anon Numpha, Kan Pongprapaphan, and Sukrit Piensuwan, all members of a network of pro-democracy activists calling themselves the “We Want Elections” group. Authorities had charged them with illegal assembly and sedition for protesting on Ratchadamnoen Avenue near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on February 10, 2018.

The court dismissed the illegal assembly charge because the then-ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) lifted the ban on a political assembly of more than five persons in December 2018. The court also rejected the sedition charge on the basis that the activists had held their rally peacefully in accordance with the constitution. The court also said that the activists’ criticisms of the military and government leaders were made in good faith according to democratic principles, and therefore did not constitute an act of incitement of unrest.

Another protest leader, Rangsiman Rome, a member of the parliament for the Future Forward party, faces a separate trial on charges of unlawful assembly and sedition, scheduled for June 2020. The prosecutor had already dropped the charges against 43 other people who faced illegal assembly charges for participating in the rally after the junta lifted the political assembly ban.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party, protects the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly. However, Thai authorities frequently treated people who peacefully expressed dissenting views as threats to national security. When a new government took office in July 2019 and the junta disbanded, at least 130 people in Bangkok and other provinces still faced illegal assembly charges, and in some cases sedition charges, for peacefully holding rallies in 2018 or posting online commentaries in support of those rallies.

“Thailand’s proclaimed path toward democracy will be unconvincing so long as the authorities are bringing politically motivated charges against peaceful critics,” Adams said. “Governments around the world should press the Thai government to end its harassment and persecution of activists demanding that Thailand respect basic rights.”

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