Thailand: Regional MPs urge end to judicial harassment of opposition politician

JAKARTA, 27 May 2019 – The Thai authorities must end their harassment of a prominent opposition politician and not seek to undermine anti-military parties in the National Assembly, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (white shirt) amoung the crowd which came to support him in front of the Pathumwan Police Station, where he was summoned to hear a sedition charge filed aganst him by the NCPO

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of the Future Forward Party (FFP), has faced at least two apparently politically motivated criminal cases over the past year. Last week, the Constitutional Court also suspended his duties as a Member of Parliament (MP), pending an investigation into an alleged violation of election rules.

“The Thai authorities’ pursuit of trumped-up criminal cases against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and other anti-military actors is a clear attempt to undermine critics of the junta. All charges against lawmakers, journalists, activists and others who have done nothing but express peaceful opinions must be dropped immediately,” said Charles Santiago, Chair of APHR and a Member of Parliament in Malaysia.

The FFP came third in Thailand’s 24 March general election with 6.2 million votes, winning 80 seats in the House of Representatives. The party has since joined the “democratic front” coalition that seeks to form a government without the pro-military Palang Pracharat party.

On 23 May, the Constitutional Court voted to suspend Thanathorn from carrying out his duties as an MP because he allegedly still held shares in a media company when he applied to run for office, a violation of Section 98 (3) of the Constitution. Thanathorn denies the charges and says he had sold the shares in January 2019.

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Human rights activists have raised concerns about politicization of the Constitutional Court, as seven of its nine judges were either appointed or had their terms extended during the junta’s rule. It is furthermore concerning that the case against Thanathorn was brought to the Court by the Election Commission (EC) before the EC had completed its own investigation into the case. The Court is expected to rule within one month’s time on whether to fully strip him off his seat in the House of Representatives. If found criminally liable he could be barred from entering politics for up to 20 years, while also facing a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine.

Thanathorn has faced at least two politically motivated criminal cases since forming the FFP. In August 2018, Thanathorn and two other FFP members were charged with violating the Computer Crime Act for streaming a video on Facebook critical of the military. On 6 April this year, police filed three criminal charges against Thanathorn – including for sedition under article 116 of the Thai criminal code – which all relate to him allegedly providing assistance to an anti-military protest leader in 2015. He could face at least five years in prison if found guilty.

Regional lawmakers are concerned that the military junta used a range of repressive laws – including sedition charges and the Computer Crimes Act – to target and silence critics after seizing power in a 2014 coup d’état. Worryingly, sedition cases in Thailand are tried in military courts that do not meet international standards of fairness and where cases often face severe delays.

“In the context of the many politicized charges against Thanathorn, it is difficult not to see the Constitutional Court’s move as another attempt to silence a voice critical of the junta. For Thai people to have faith in their country’s democratic process, authorities must show that they respect the outcome of the recent vote. This means allowing those elected to take part in public life, no matter how ‘inconvenient’ their opinions are,” said Teddy Baguilat, APHR Board Member and MP in the Philippines.

Other politicians have also been targeted during the years of military rule, including Chaturon Chaisang – a member of APHR and former Education Minister – who was charged with two sedition counts after criticizing military rule at separate press conferences in 2014 and in May 2018.

The harassment of Thanathorn mirrors a worrying regional trend where authoritarian governments rely on the legal books to undermine opposition lawmakers.

In Cambodia, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2017 orchestrated the arbitrary disbandment of the main opposition party through the Supreme Court. In the Philippines, several opposition lawmakers have faced trumped-up criminal charges since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016. These include Senator Leila de Lima who has been detained since February 2017 on drug trafficking charges that the UN and human rights groups have criticized as politically motivated.

“Parliamentarians can play a crucial role in upholding and defending human rights, but only if they are allowed to act without restrictions and fear of reprisals. It is disturbing that governments across Southeast Asia seek to undermine opposition figures through threats, harassment and criminal charges,” said Eva Sundari, APHR Board Member and MP in Indonesia.