Villagers fined for campaigning against junta-written constitution

20 villagers have been found guilty of violating the junta’s ban on public gatherings by supporting a referendum monitoring campaign. The villagers pleaded guilty, but only because of the high costs of fighting the case. 
 
On 6 March 2016, Udon Thani Military Court ruled that 20 villagers from Sakon Nakhon province were guilty of violating NCPO Head Order 3/2015, the junta’s ban on public assemblies of five people or more. The court originally sentenced each villager to 1 month in jail and a fine of 5,000 baht. But since the defendants pleaded guilty and had never been in jail before, the court halved the punishment to a 2,500 baht fine and a 15-day suspended jail term.  
 
The case began after the villagers took a photo with a banner from the Centre against Electoral Fraud in the Referendum, the constitutional referendum monitoring centre run by the red-shirt movement.
 
 
The picture that led the charge (Photo from TLHR) 
 
Narasit Ritthitham, one of the defendants, told Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) that the villagers pleaded guilty because travelling to court is very costly. The trip from Sakon Nakhon to the military court in Udon Thani costs thousands of baht each time, given that eight of the 20 are over 60 years old and some have chronic diseases. 
 
Narasit added that the prosecution has prevented them from going about their daily lives and has disrupted their work. They cannot work outside their hometown due to the court summons. He stated that if the villagers had been prosecuted at a local civilian court, they might have fought the case. 
 
The villagers decided to plead guilty and ask the military court to reduce their sentences, reasoning that they have to feed their families.      
 
According to TLHR, Narasit does not even appear in the controversial picture that led to the charge. The military officer pressed charges against him as the campaign was hosted on his land. 
 
During last year's referendum, at least 143 people across eight provinces were prosecuted for violating NCPO Head Order 3/2015 after joining campaigns by the Centre against Electoral Fraud in the Referendum. 74 decided to sign an agreement promising not to participate in any political activity in exchange for dropping the charges against them. Some pleaded guilty to have their sentence reduced.
 
 
Villagers smile as they are happy with the court's verdict (Photo from TLHR)