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Scholars at Risk calls for government to release detained students and cease prosecutions

On 2 April 2021, Scholars at Risk (SAR) sent a letter to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha expressing concern over the detention and prosecution of three students as part of the current trend of criminalization of peaceful political expression. The students are currently being held in pretrial detention on charges of violation of Article 112 (lèse majesté) and other violations related to their participation in protests in 2020.

The three detained student activists. From left: Panupong Jadnok, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, and Parit Chiwarak

The three students are “Penguin” Parit Chiwarak, a student at Thammasat University;  “Rung” Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a student at Thammasat University; and “Mike” Panupong Jadnok, a student at Ramkhamhaeng University. SAR called for their immediate release and for all charges against them to be dropped.

SAR expressed particular concern over the repeated denials of bail for all three students and the health and safety of the two students who are currently on hunger strike, namely Parit Chiwarak and Panusaya Sitthijirawattanakul.  SAR noted that the detention and prosecution of the students for nonviolent expression is in contravention of the right to freedom of expression is conduct that is protected under both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a state party, and requested clarification from the government as to why these actions had been taken.

The letter was also cc’ed to other key figures in the government and judiciary, namely Don Pramudwinai, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Somsak Thepsutin, Minister of Justice; Sittichote Intrawiset, President of the Criminal Court; Metinee Chalodhorn, President of the Supreme Court; Police Colonel Suchart Wongananchai, Director General of the Department of Corrections; General Apirat Kongsompong, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army; General Chaktip Chaijinda, Commissioner-General of the Royal Thai Police; Prakairat Tanteerawong, Chairman of the National Human Rights Council.

SAR is a U.S.-based international network of academic institutions organized to support and defend the principles of academic freedom and to defend the human rights of scholars around the world. Their network includes over 530 higher education institutions in 42 countries. SAR has followed the academic freedom and broader human rights situation in Thailand since the 22 May 2014 coup.

The complete letter reads: 

Your Excellency:

I write on behalf of the Scholars at Risk Network to express grave concern over the detention of three students, Mr. “Penguin” Parit Chiwarak, Ms. “Rung” Panusaya Sitthijirawattanakul, and Mr. “Mike” Panupong Jadnok, and the lèse-majesté and sedition charges they face in apparent retaliation for their nonviolent participation in pro-democracy protests. SAR respectfully urges you to immediately secure the students’ release and to drop any charges against them.

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of more than 500 universities and colleges in 43 countries dedicated to protecting the human rights of scholars around the world, and to raising awareness, understanding of, and respect for the principles of academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of expression, opinion, thought, association, and travel. In cases like this, involving alleged infringement of these freedoms, Scholars at Risk investigates hoping to clarify and resolve matters favorably.

SAR understands that, starting on July 18, 2020, students and other young people across Thailand organized protests demanding democratic reforms, including the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his cabinet, the drafting of a new constitution based on the will of the people, and an end to the repression of dissidents. Police arrested Mr. Parit, a Thammasat University student, and Mr. Panupong, a Ramkhamhaeng University student, in August 2020. In October of the same year, police arrested Ms. Panusaya, also of Thammasat University. While all were initially charged with sedition for their participation in the protests, in late 2020, authorities added charges of lèse majesté (Criminal Code Section 112).

On February 9, 2021, a criminal court formally indicted Mr. Parit and ordered him held in pretrial detention on the lèse majesté charges against him. Ms. Panusaya and Mr. Panupong were likewise formally indicted on lèse majesté charges and ordered detained on March 8. Thailand’s lèse majesté law provides for up to 15 years’ imprisonment for anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir apparent or the Regent.” Mr. Parit faces at least 20 counts of lèse majesté, for, inter alia, 12 different speeches and 4 social media posts between August 2020 and February 2021. Ms. Panusaya faces at least 9 counts of lèse majesté, for, inter alia, 4 speeches and 2 social media posts between August 2020 and February 2021. Mr. Panupong faces at least 8 counts of lèse majesté, for, inter alia, 4 speeches and 2 social media posts between August 2020 and February 2021.

In all three cases, the court has denied bail on the grounds that the gravity of the punishment makes flight likely. As of this writing, Mr. Panupong is being held in the Bangkok Remand Prison; Ms. Panusaya is being held in the Central Women’s Prison. Mr. Parit’s health has deteriorated considerably since March 15, when he began a hunger strike to protest the denial of bail. SAR understands that Mr. Parit is currently being held in Pathumthani Detention Center, where he is serving 15 days for contempt of court, apparently in connection to his announcement of his hunger strike. After his contempt sentence, Mr. Parit will be transferred back to Bangkok Remand Prison. At a March 29 hearing, the court again denied bail for Mr. Parit, Mr. Panupong, and Ms. Panusaya. SAR understands that Ms. Panusaya has since started a hunger strike.

We welcome any additional information that may explain these events or clarify our understanding. Absent this, the facts as described suggest that Mr. Parit, Mr. Panupong, and Ms. Panusaya are being detained and prosecuted as a result of the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression–conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party. Detentions and prosecutions in connection with nonviolent political expression by student activists raise serious concerns about protection for free expression, academic freedom and the higher education space in Thailand.

SAR therefore respectfully urges you to direct the appropriate authorities to immediately release the students; drop any charges against them that arise out of nonviolent expressive activity; and ensure that they are afforded due process, humane treatment, and access to medical care, family, and legal counsel, in accordance with international human rights obligations.

I thank you for your consideration and look forward to your response.

Sincerely,
Robert Quinn
Executive Director

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