Student activists sentenced to jail for contempt of court

Student activists Benja Apan and Nutchanon Pairoj have been sentenced to jail on contempt of court charges stemming from a protest at the Ratchadapisek Criminal Court on 29 April 2021 to demand the release of detained activists.

Benja Apan speaking in front of the Criminal Court on 29 April 2021

On 29 April 2021, a crowd gathered on the steps of the Ratchadapisek Criminal Court while lawyers went to file a bail request for 7 activists who were detained pending trial at the time on a royal defamation charge. During the protest, Benja and a group of other students came to the Criminal Court to submit an open letter signed by over 10,000 people demanding the release of detained activists.

When judge Chanathip Muanpawong did not come out to receive the letter, Benja scattered pieces of paper printed with the names of those who signed the letter on the steps of the court building. She also read out a poem by Anon Nampa, which criticised the judicial process and call on judges to grant justice to the people.

Benja was sentenced to 6 months in prison, which, according to a lawyer from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), is the highest possible sentence for the charge.

The court ruled that Benja’s action caused disorder on the court grounds, and that the poem she read insulted the judiciary. The court also said that as she showed no remorse for her action, there was no reason to reduce her sentence.

Benja scattering paper on the steps in front of the Criminal Court

After leaving the trial, Benja met student activist and fellow United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration member Cholathit Chotsawat and gender equality activist Chumaporn Tangkliang, who were waiting outside the courtroom. She cried, asked Chumaporn “when will it end?” and questioned why the leaders of military coups never get prosecuted.

Benja then asserted that her legs were her own and she had the right to walk by herself or not.  She told the correctional officers surrounding her that they already had power over her body and could do what they wanted but that they were going to have to drag her as she would not be moving from the spot on her own.

She then sat down on the ground. The correctional officers brought in a wheelchair, two women officers pulled Benja up and took her away. As she was being taken, Benja called out “Down with feudalism. Long live the people.”

Benja is currently being detained pending trial on a lèse majesté charge in connection with the 10 August 2021 protest. She has been denied bail at least 3 times.

People gathered at the Criminal Court on 29 April 2021 to demand the release of detained activists

Meanwhile, Nutchanon was sentenced to 4 months in prison, but was later released after posting a 50,000-baht bail.  The surety was covered by Will of the People Fund, a charity established to help people facing charges for participating in the pro-democracy movement.

At the 29 April protest, Nutchanon gave a speech on the steps of the court, saying that he does not count the judges as alumni of Thammasat University, where he is currently studying, because they do not love the people as stated in the university’s motto. He also shouted for Chanathip to come receive their open letter and said that the judges “have no backbone.”

Nutchanon said that he made the statement because he believes that denying detained activists bail rights is an injustice that goes against legal principles. The court found him guilty of contempt of court, not for expressing opinions different from the court, but rather for joining a protest, shouting, and acting rudely in a court area in an attempt at use a crowd to pressure the court, which violates the court’s independence in ruling on a case.

According to iLaw, during Benja’s trial, court police were stationed in front of the courtroom, and even though the judge did not order the trial to be held in secret, no observers were allowed into the room, ostensibly as a Covid-19 prevention measure.  During Nutchanon’s trial, the court prohibited all recording devices and only allowed note-taking.

TLHR reports that since 18 July 2020, at least 26 people have been charged with contempt of court. Of this number, at least 14 have been charged for demanding bail rights for detained activists. 

Other than Benja and Nutchanon, 4 other activists are facing contempt of court charges for participating in the 29 April 2021 protest: Pattarapong Noipang, Shinnawat Chankrajang, Elia Fofi, and Pisitkul Kuantalaeng.

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