Court bows to coup-makers, gives activist 2 months suspended jail term

Withdrawing an earlier ruling, a district court has sentenced a prominent anti-junta activist to two months in prison with the jail term suspended for one year.

On 19 December 2016, Pathumwan District Court of Bangkok read the verdict of the Court of First Instance for Apichat Pongsawat, a 27-year-old prominent anti-junta activist.

The court sentenced Apichat to two months in prison and a 6,000 baht fine for violating the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) Head’s Order No. 3/2015 and Article 215 of the Criminal Code.

The NCPO Head’s Order prohibits any political gathering of five or more persons while Article 215 states that a person who assembles with 10 or more people to disrupt peace and order faces imprisonment not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding 6,000 Baht or both.

He faced these charges for participating in an anti-junta protest in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 coup d’état.  

The court, however, suspended the jail term for one year because Apichat had never committed any crime before.

In his defence, Apichat testified during the trial that he did not incite people to participate in protests against the coup-makers, but merely joined the protest of his own accord because he has the right to do so according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a state party.

He argued that the 2014 coup d’état was not yet successful at that time. Therefore, it was the duty of Thai citizens to protect the constitution against the coup-makers.

The court, however, dismissed Apichat’s testimony, reasoning that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader and Prime Minister, had by then already gained the authority to rule the country after staging the coup d’état.   

Apichat, a former graduate law student of Thammasat University and official at the Law Reform Commission of Thailand (LRCT), was among the first group of people to be arrested by the coup-makers in the immediate aftermath of the May 2014 coup d’état.

On 23 May 2014, one day after the coup, he was arrested by military officers in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) in central Bangkok holding a flyer reading “I will not accept barbaric power” and shouting pro-democracy slogans such as “return power to the people”.

The military detained him for seven days under martial law then in force, before transferring him to Bangkok Remand Prison for another 23 days in detention. Before his release, Apichat’s family offered bail of 1,000,000 baht (about 27,751 USD) four times, which the court rejected repeatedly, citing flight risk.

Besides violating the junta’s ban on assemblies, the prosecutors also indicted Apichat for offenses under Articles 215, 216, and 368 of Thailand’s Criminal Code.

During the first hearing on the case in November 2015, the judge told Apichat and his lawyers that the case was not serious. Even if he was proven guilty, the sentence would not be heavy. Apichat maintained that he would fight until the end to prove his innocence even though doing so might result in a heavier sentence.

Earlier in February 2016, the Court of First Instance dismissed charges against Apichat on grounds that the prosecution did not present documents on the division of authority among public officers to sufficiently affirm that police officers from the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) had the authority to interrogate Apichat.

The Appeal Court, however, later ordered the lower court to reconsider its earlier ruling, reasoning that CSD police officers did have the authority to interrogate the suspect.

Apichat said that he will make a request to appeal the ruling to prove his innocence.  

Apichat arrested by a military officers after participating in an anti-coup protest in central Bangkok on 23 May 2014 (file photo)