BANGKOK » Fourteen detained student activists went before a military court in Thailand on Tuesday in a case that has attracted international calls for their release and criticism of the military junta’s strict controls on freedom of speech and assembly.
The university students, 13 men and one woman, were arrested June 26 on charges of sedition and violating the junta’s ban on political gatherings for leading a peaceful anti-coup rally in Bangkok. Each student faces up to seven years in prison.
On Tuesday, they were taken from a Bangkok prison to a military court, which was to decide whether to extend their pre-trial detention for 12 more days. Under Thai law, people can be held a maximum of 48 days without formal charges.
University professors and students joined dozens of supporters to show support for the activists outside the court, across from the Grand Palace in Bangkok’s historic quarter, in defiance of the junta’s ban on political gatherings. Journalists were not allowed to enter the courtroom.
Thai media have called the case a "hot potato" for the military government, which has come under growing calls both inside and outside Thailand to release the students but does not want to be seen bowing to pressure.
Since overthrowing an elected government in May 2014, the nation’s military rulers have jailed opponents who dared to speak out against them. They have censored the media and forbidden open political debate. The junta’s curbs on freedoms include a ban on political gatherings of five or more people and orders for security-related offenses to be handled by military courts.
The military has spoken of holding national elections but has not said exactly when they could take place, and its latest constitutional draft would curb the powers of elected political leaders.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the students’ arrests "demonstrate the military junta’s unwillingness to ease its oppressive rule."
The U.N. human rights office has called for the students’ release and urged the government to review its use of laws that limit freedom of expression and assembly.
The European Union has called the arrests "a disturbing development" and said civilians should not be tried in military courts.
The students’ case is the latest dilemma for the government, which has come under fire for the country’s long-ignored human trafficking violations and illegal activity in the lucrative fishing industry that could lead to an EU ban on imports from Thailand.