Civil society network launches campaign for amnesty bill

A network of civil society organisations has launched a campaign to introduce to parliament a bill granting amnesty to pro-democracy activists and protesters. Members of the network say that, if passed, the bill would become the first step towards political reconciliation.

Members of the Network for People's Amnesty at parliament on 1 February submitting their petition. (Photo by Ginger Cat)

The campaign was launched last Thursday (1 February) when representatives of the Network for People’s Amnesty went to parliament to submit a petition to start the process of introducing the bill to parliament. They also visited the headquarters of the Move Forward and Pheu Thai Parties to invite leaders of both parties to attend an event on 14 February, the final day of the campaign, during which the network will submit their proposal for an amnesty bill.

If passed, the bill will grant amnesty to those facing charges for participating in political protests from 19 September 2006 to the date on which the law comes into effect. However, charges filed against state officials involved in protests, such as during crackdown operations, will not be dropped so that they will not be given impunity for actions deemed to be disproportionate.

Under this bill, those facing charges under NCPO orders, regulations issued under the Emergency Decree, the 2016 Constitutional Referendum Act, the royal defamation law, and other charges related to participating in protests will automatically be granted amnesty.

Cases involving people who did not directly participate in protests but were charged for inciting resistance to the state or state operations though protest, or other forms of expression that posed a potential danger the life, liberty, property, or reputation of another person will be considered by an amnesty committee before charges against them can be dropped.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), at least 1,947 people have been charged in relation to political expression and participation in protests since the student-led protest on 18 July 2020.

First step towards reconciliation

Cardboard cutouts of political prisoners lined up in front of the entrance to Pheu Thai Party headquarters on 1 February. (Photo by Ginger Cat)

Bussarin Peannanh, iLaw’s political advocacy officer, said that the time has come for a conversation about amnesty to deliver justice to people being prosecuted for participating in political protests. It would also be the first step to ending conflict.

“If I’m a defendant facing a politically-motivated charge, and I got charged with something that has a severe penalty or a charge that[…]prevents me from living a normal life when I only had good intentions, when I just want to change the country for the better[…] a feeling of injustice remains with people, right? So [an amnesty] might be a way to really eliminate conflict,” she said.

Akarachai Chaimaneekarakate, TLHR’s advocacy lead, said that the first step towards reconciliation is to end the prosecution of dissidents and grant amnesty to everyone, including every activist, charged for participating in protests since 2006.

“If you’re still taking citizens to court and prosecuting them, conflict will remain in the society. If we don’t sit down and talk, using our freedom of peaceful expression, then we can’t move past this conflict,” he said.

“I think that amnesty is the first thing, the first step that we must take so that the people and the government can start talking without the risk of others being prosecuted.”

Members of the public signing the petition at a signature collection spot. (Photo from iLaw)

The bill needs at least 10,000 signatures from eligible voters to be introduced to parliament. The petition can be signed online or at events the network is organising throughout the 14-day campaign. As of 8 February, it has 15,826 signatures.

After it is introduced, the bill will need to go through three readings in parliament before it can become law, a lengthy process which can take several months or years. When asked what else can be done now if it takes a long time for the bill to pass, Akarachai said that the Office of the Attorney General is allowed to pull any case from court if they see that it is no longer in the interest of the public to pursue it. A public prosecutor can also dismiss any case submitted to them.

By way of example, Akarachai noted that with charges brought under the Emergency Decree, declared to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and since been lifted, one could question whether it is still in the public interest to put such cases through court when the risks that were present during the pandemic are no longer here.

Amnesty for all

Among posters being shown at a march on Monday (5 February), when Amnesty International Thailand submitted a petition demanding the release of human rights lawyer Anon Nampa, was one with a poster of Warunee, now detained pending appeal on a royal defamation charge for posting an edited picture of King Vajiralongkorn changing the seasonal decoration of the Emerald Buddha. (Photo from iLaw)

Of the four amnesty bills waiting to be introduced to parliament, only the Network for People’s Amnesty’s version states clearly that it will grant amnesty to those charged with royal defamation. The Move Forward Party’s version does not say what charges will be granted amnesty, while versions proposed by the United Thai Nation Party and the Thai Teachers for People Party say that royal defamation defendants will not be granted amnesty.

Bussarin said that the Network has faced questions on including royal defamation in its amnesty bill, and that members of the Network were told the bill might not pass if they insist on lifting royal defamation charges. Nevertheless, she insisted that royal defamation complaints are often politically motivated and that this law has been used to silence dissidents, noting that it was most often used when there were mass protests, such as during the Red Shirt protests in 2010, after the 2014 military coup, and during the pro-democracy protests since 2020.

“Charges under Section 112 [the royal defamation law] are charges relating to freedom. If you look at the statistics, it is very clear that Section 112 has been used in relation to political protests,” Bussarin said.

“Its use disappeared in 2018 – 2019, and returned when the protests were expanding and there growing demands for monarchy reform. It’s clear that Section 112 has been used to suppress people who exercised their freedom of expression.”

Akarachai also noted the correlation between political protests and the rise in the number of royal defamation charges as well as the number of people charged for posting or commenting on social media.  “It’s clear that you could be prosecuted just for expressing your opinion, comment on Facebook, or share articles,” he said.

TLHR said that, between 24 November 2020 – 5 February 2024, at least 263 people have been charged with royal defamation for instances of political expression, from protest speeches to posting on social media. Of this number, at least 20 people were charged when they were under the age of 18.

Of the 25 people detained pending trial or appeal on charges relating to political expression, 16 are detained for royal defamation, including 2 minors. Meanwhile, 6 people are serving a prison sentence for royal defamation following a final verdict from the Supreme Court or after deciding not to appeal.

The public prosecutor has also been indicted everyone accused of royal defamation. Akarachai said that, among the cases being handled by TLHR, none has been dismissed, raising the question of whether there is any case that could have dismissed and should not gone to court.

Members of the Network for People's Amnesty and the Democracy Restoration Group standing near the Chatuchak Park MRT station on 29 January holding signs calling for amnesty.

Both Bussarin and Akarachai said they hope that the public will support the campaign. Despite protests having slowed down, Bussarin believes there are still active citizens waiting for something to do.

“Just because there isn’t movement doesn’t mean that people don’t feel like they want change. It’s just a question of whether there is a place for them to express themselves,” she said, noting that iLaw previously launched a campaign to call for a referendum on constitutional amendment, during which they were able to collect signatures within a week with the help of volunteers.

“I believe in freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Now that people who exercise their freedom are facing this many charges, I feel that we can’t let this go. Are we going to let them keep facing these unfair, politically motivated charges?” Bussarin said.

“I feel that this bill would be the first step. It would be the first door that we will open into a space where we can have a discussion so that there isn’t conflict, or there is less conflict in the future.”

On the road to the UN Human Rights Council

Activists and representatives of the Network for People's Amnesty in front of the UN headquarters in Bangkok on 22 January 2024 before submitting their letter. (Photo by Chanakarn Laosarakham/iLaw)

The Thai government previously announced its intention to run as a candidate in the next round of elections for the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Meanwhile, civil society groups have raised concerns about ongoing human rights issues in the country, including the detention of political prisoners.

Akarachai said that, with the ongoing prosecution of people for exercising their freedom of expression, the question remains whether Thailand is ready for a seat on the UNHRC, the task of which is to promote human rights. He noted that, not only have almost 2000 people been prosecuted for political expression, but a man was recently sentenced to 50 years in prison on a royal defamation charge over Facebook posts – the longest-ever sentence given to a person for royal defamation.

“Campaigning for amnesty will be the first step out of political crisis, especially the issue of political prosecution of people exercising their freedom of expression, because we think that this shows a commitment to the world that Thailand is now ready to take on the burden and responsibility that comes with becoming a member of the Human Rights Council,” he said.

On 23 January, the Network for People’s Amnesty filed a letter with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) asking the Office to call on the Thai government to pass an amnesty bill before the UNHRC election this October. The letter says that whether the Thai government passes a comprehensive amnesty bill that includes those charged with royal defamation is “a litmus test for its commitments for human rights and its readiness to assume the full responsibilities and duties that come with the UN Human Rights Council membership.”

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