Bangkok, Thailand – A key court ruling in Thailand has raised concern that activists could face charges of treason after nearly 18 months of anti-government protests that have also called for a new constitution and royal reform.
Thailand’s constitutional court made the ruling in a case brought against three protest leaders who are facing charges under strict royal defamation laws.
A panel of judges ruled on Wednesday that the activists’ calls for reform were more than just rhetorical blasphemy.
The court said their speeches aimed “to overthrow the constitutional monarchy” with Judge Wiroon Sangtian saying that any reform of royal laws would “bring the monarchy to an unrespected status and could bring disobedience among the people.”
The defendants’ lawyer, Krisadang Nutcharut, told Al Jazeera that the ruling was a dark day.
“It’s not too far fetched to say that it [the death penalty] could be given,” Krisadang said. “ This ruling is not only related to section 112, [lese majeste] but they are now calling this an attempt to overthrow the regime, a treasonous offence that’s punishable with life in prison or death.”
The ruling follows months of demonstrations that began in July 2020, with protesters calling not only for the government to step down but for the reform of the country’s powerful and wealthy monarchy. The unprecedented demands have increased public debate around the palace, shattering a longstanding taboo about openly criticising the royal institution.
The three defendants in the case include Arnon Nampa and Panupong “Mike” Jadnok who are already facing more than a century in prison if found guilty on a slew of charges.
The third, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul known as “Rung”, was the activist who read out the protesters’ 10 demands in August last year, including a call for greater transparency on the king’s wealth and that the monarchy should pay taxes. Out on bail, she has also been charged under royal defamation laws and faces as many as 15 years in prison for each count if found guilty.
The judges’ announcement suggests the public activism of the three protest leaders is being equated with an attempt to overthrow the country’s political system with the king as head of state.
Defence witnesses barred
Krisadang, and many local rights groups, fear the far-reaching language could be used to reel in other opposition figures.
“When the court ordered ‘network organisations’ to not do the same actions, no one understands how broad this order is,” said Yingcheep Atchanont, a legal expert and manager of iLaw, a local group that promotes freedom of expression.
“There is no previous legal precedent for us to understand how the constitutional court is supposed to be enforced and by who,” he said.
He added that the court did not allow the activists to call witnesses in their defence or review documents of the allegations against them, saying this effectively made it impossible for them to fight their case fairly.
All three – two of whom are being held in custody – left the court feeling that they were not given the opportunity to even make a case for themselves, their lawyers say.
Krisadang added that the government has already taken steps to dissolve the nation’s most progressive political party, Move Forward, in the aftermath of the ruling.
The opposition party, which captured public attention as Future Forward in the 2019 election, openly called for the country’s royal defamation laws to be abolished earlier this year. If the ruling is followed, the party could be legally viewed as threatening the royal institution justifying its dissolution.
Panusaya, 23 years old, was dismayed that the judge refused to allow defence witnesses.
“Sovereignty belongs to the people,” the young activist tweeted on Wednesday shortly after the hearing. “When the justice system does not seem to listen to both parties equally, injustice will surely arise,” she wrote in another tweet.
Amnesty International says the ruling sends a worrying message about the human rights situation in Thailand, but also seemed to have energised the protest movement.
“If this ruling was meant to instil fear in the people and prevent them from further discussing these kinds of issues, then it has backfired,” Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research, said in a statement on Friday.
“We see an avalanche of hashtags, tweets and other outpouring on social media immediately after the ruling came out. More than 200,000 Thais have signed a recent petition to abolish Article 112, the lèse majesté law of the Thai Criminal Code.”
The ruling came on the same day as Thailand’s human rights record was being reviewed at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Amnesty says the timing was a signal to the international community that Thailand has no intention of meeting international rights standards in terms of free speech.
More protests planned
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy for nearly 90 years, but it has also been marked by frequent military coups, most recently in 2014.
Tyrell Haberkorn, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and specialist on Thai dissident politics, told Al Jazeera that the decision could lead to more people dissenting in the streets and online.
“The constitutional court’s collapse of reform and revolt into the same action is very concerning,” she said.
“In the long-term, can the Thai polity bear the equation of peaceful dissent with revolt? The constitutional court explained that their decision was made to preserve democratic rule with the king as head of state. There is no version of democracy that can exist in a polity in which peaceful expression of opinion is treated as an attempt to overthrow the state.”
Two days after the ruling, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, the government’s legal expert, warned protesters to stay off the streets.
“They must be more careful in future rallies,” Wissanu said. He appeared to suggest that protesters will risk more criminal charges if they hold protests in response to the ruling.
There is some concern that the decision could lead to violence.
Multiple anti-government groups have called for an enormous demonstration in Bangkok on Sunday, following one of the biggest protests in months last weekend.
“Thai history has shown that when those in power feel they are losing their grip, when they cannot use the courts or the laws, when they can no longer use the media to control people, then they will resort to arrests, prosecution, and then violence.
“It feels similar to what we saw 45 years ago,” Krisadang said, referring to the Thammasat Massacre, when dozens of students were killed after troops opened fire on a university demonstration, an event that is widely viewed as one of the darkest days in Thai history.
Despite the darkening outlook, Krisadang says the three activists remain in good spirits and will not be deterred.
“I think they are still determined to fight for the political cause,” he said.