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 Thai authorities should immediately drop all charges and unconditionally release the prominent Thammasat University student activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, Human Rights Watch said today. Police are reportedly planning to arrest at least 31 other people, including many student movement leaders, in the coming days, Human Rights Watch has learned.

Parit Chiwarak after his release this afternoon

“Each new arrest of a peaceful pro-democracy activist shows the Thai government’s authoritarian tendencies and lack of respect for human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Peaceful protests and critical expression demanding political reform should not be criminalized.”

On August 14, 2020, Thai police arrested Parit on charges related to his involvement in the July 18 “Free Youth” rally in Bangkok. He is charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, assembly with intention to cause violence, violating the ban on public gathering, and other criminal offenses. On August 7, police arrested two other members of the Free Youth Movement, Arnon Nampha and Panupong Jadnok, in Bangkok on the same charges.

Parit also faces additional charges from other anti-government protests on June 5 and June 24, for which he is accused of violating a ban on public gathering under emergency measures to control the Covid-19 pandemic and other offenses related to traffic and public cleanliness. He is detained at Bangkok’s Samranrat Police Station.

These arrests belie the government’s pledges to respect fundamental freedoms, Human Rights Watch said.

Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha denied that there was an imminent crackdown and pledged to listen to dissenting voices raised at youth-led rallies. “The government has been very careful all along even though many people are not happy [with the youth-led rallies],” General Prayut said during the cabinet meeting on August 13. “The students hold protests, using their fundamental freedoms, and we will listen to them and seek to resolve differences with them.”

The Free Youth movement organized the peaceful rally in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on July 18. It was the largest political protest in Thailand since the 2014 military coup, with more than 1,000 participants calling for the dissolution of Parliament, a new constitution, and an end to authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. The rallies have since spread to at least 55 provinces across the country and broadened their demands to include reforms of the institution of the monarchy to curb King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s powers.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views.

Repressive actions continued after the March 2019 general elections, which brought the coup leader General Prayut back to office as the prime minister for a second term. Thailand’s anti-rights trend has intensified over the past five months, as Thai authorities have used state-of-emergency measures implemented to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists.

“The Thai government’s intolerance of political criticism and dissenting opinions indicates an embrace of authoritarian rule, not a transition to rule of law and democracy,” Adams said. “Concerned governments and the United Nations need to publicly demand that the Thai government should fulfill its promises to allow Thai people to organize, assemble peacefully, and express their visions for the future of the country.”

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