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Jatupat "Pai" Boonpattararaksa plays the Isan harp at Democracy Monument during a protest against the imprisonment of four pro-democracy activists in Bangkok, Thailand on March 7, 2021. © 2021 Watcharawit Phudork / Sipa via AP Images

(New York) – Thailand’s Bangkok Criminal Court has ordered three prominent democracy activists to pretrial detention on charges of insulting the monarchy, Human Rights Watch said today. The order could leave them detained for years until their trial is concluded.

On March 8, 2021, Thailand’s attorney general charged Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, and Panupong “Mike” Jadnok with lese majeste for making speeches demanding reforms of the monarchy during a political rally on September 19, 2020. The charge under article 112 of the Criminal Code is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The activists were also charged with sedition under article 116, which carries a maximum 7-year sentence. The Bangkok Criminal Court did not permit the defendants to apply for bail. The court ordered Jatupat and Panupong to the Bangkok Remand Prison, and Panusya to the Central Women’s Correctional Institution.

“There is a growing pattern of Thai activists charged with lese majeste being sent to long periods of pretrial detention,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Courts should uphold the right to the presumption of innocence and ensure all fair trial procedures are observed.”

The cases follow the February 9 court decision to send four prominent democracy activists – Arnon Nampha, Parit Chiwarak, Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, and Patiwat Saraiyaem – to pretrial detention on similar charges. Over the past month, the court denied their bail requests five times, saying they are likely to repeat the alleged offenses if released.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand has ratified, encourages bail for criminal suspects. Article 9 states that, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial.” Those denied bail should be tried as expeditiously as possible, Human Rights Watch said.

The number of lese majeste cases in Thailand has been rapidly increasing, Human Rights Watch said. After almost a three-year hiatus in which lese majeste prosecutions were not brought before the courts, in November Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered Thai authorities to bring back lese majeste prosecutions as a response to growing criticisms of the monarchy. Since then, officials have charged at least 60 people with lese majeste crimes in relation to various activities at pro-democracy rallies or their comments on social media.

In a February 8 statement on the situation in Thailand, United Nations human rights experts said that lese majeste laws have no place in a democratic country. They also expressed serious concerns about the growing number of lese majeste prosecutions since November and harsh prison sentences the courts have meted out to some defendants, including an 87-year prison sentence, later halved after she pleaded guilty, on January 19 to a retired civil servant, Anchan Preelert. Unless the sentence is commuted, Anchan, who is 65, will most likely spend the rest of her life in prison. The ruling has had a clear chilling effect on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

The ICCPR protects the right to freedom of expression. General Comment 34 of the Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors compliance with the covenant, has stated that laws such as those for lese majeste “should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned” and that governments “should not prohibit criticism of institutions.”

“Thai authorities should immediately end their heavy-handed enforcement of the lese majeste law and allow a broad-based discussion to bring the law into compliance with Thailand’s international human rights law obligations,” Adams said.

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