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Human Rights Watch calls for Thai govt. to drop charges against opposition leaders and activists

Thai authorities should immediately drop all politically motivated charges against opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists who held peaceful rallies in Bangkok and other Thai provinces, Human Rights Watch said today (18 December). 

A sign held by one of the protestors on Saturday (14 December)'s rally

On 16 December 2019, police filed charges against the Future Forward Party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, for organizing a rally on December 14 at Bangkok’s Pathumwan Intersection to oppose the government’s attempts to dissolve the party. More than 10,000 people attended the rally, the biggest political gathering since the May 2014 military coup.

“The Thai government’s prosecution of opposition politicians and activists for holding peaceful protests shows how unwilling it is to ease its chokehold on fundamental freedoms,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha’s latest crackdown makes a mockery of his promises to restore democracy and respect for human rights in Thailand.”

The authorities accused Thanathorn of holding a public assembly without permission under the Public Assembly Act and using loudspeakers without permission under the Controlling Public Advertisement by Sound Amplifier Act.

In addition, Sonthiya Sawasdee of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party filed a police complaint against Thanathorn and other key members of the Future Forward Party under the Public Assembly Act for not notifying authorities of the rally and holding it within 150 meters of a royal residence. He also accused the party’s leadership of committing sedition and showing disrespect toward the monarchy, which are both serious criminal offenses in Thailand.

In Chiang Mai province, the police brought charges against pro-democracy activists who opened a Facebook page called “Liberal Assembly of Chiang Mai University for Democracy,” which invited people to join a rally at Tha Pae Gate in Chiang Mai to coincide with the gathering in Bangkok.

The ban on a public assembly – imposed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) military junta – was lifted in December 2018. But more than 100 people in Bangkok and other provinces faced illegal assembly charges in 2019 under the arbitrary and overbroad language of the Public Assembly Act, and in some cases faced sedition charges, for holding peaceful rallies.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Thailand in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has stated that those wishing to exercise their right to peaceful assembly should not be required to obtain permission.

Imposing criminal penalties on people who fail to ask the government for consent to exercise their right to peaceful assembly is an unacceptable interference with their basic rights, the rapporteur said. The government instead has an obligation to facilitate peaceful assemblies “within sight and sound” of their intended target. When it fails to meet that obligation, arresting and prosecuting those who seek to assemble in a more appropriate venue is a disproportionate and inappropriate response.

“Concerned governments should urge Thai officials to drop these politically motivated charges against the Future Forward Party leadership,” Adams said. “There should be no rush to return to business as usual with Thailand until the Prayut government seriously commits to respect human rights.”