Two anti-government activists were brought before a court on Friday evening following their arrest earlier in the day, and at least five more were being sought as authorities began a crackdown on the growing movement.
Human rights lawyer Anon Nampa and Panupong Jaadnok, a leader of recent rallies, face charges of sedition, violating the emergency decree and other offences.
Mr Anon made a speech on Monday that touched on some highly sensitive matters related to the monarchy. However, police said on Friday that the charges had nothing to do with that event and stemmed instead from a rally held on July 18 in Bangkok.
Supporters of the two men gathered on Friday night outside the Criminal Court, where police had brought them to seek their detention.
Another 200 people rallied outside the Bang Khen police station, where they vowed not to disperse until the two men were freed. Among them was Parit “Penguin” Cheewarak, a student activist at Thammasat University, who said he was also the subject of a warrant. He said he intended to use peaceful disobedience because he views his arrest as illegitimate.
At the court, local media reported that some sympathetic opposition MPs had offered to use their positions as surety to obtain the two suspects’ temporary release. However, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) tweeted on Friday night that the pair had changed their minds about seeking bail, which could result in them being held in jail over the weekend.
In a letter posted on the TLHR Twitter account, Mr Anon called on his supporters to continue their rallies. “I am willing to sacrifice my freedom to stand by my principles,” he wrote. “Don’t waste your time on freeing Anon. Use your time to fight for the goals we are fighting for.”
The Free People group had called earlier for a rally to be held at the Bang Khen police station to protest against the lawyer’s detention.
Mr Anon, who has represented several pro-democracy activists in the past, was the first to be whisked away by police on Friday afternoon to the Samran Rat station in Bangkok. After he signed documents acknowledging the charges, he was sent to the Bang Khen station.
He posted a picture of the arrest warrant on his Facebook page after police confronted him around 2pm in front of his condominium in Bangkok.
The 34-year-old lawyer faces seven charges: inciting unrest or sedition (Section 116 of the Criminal Code); illegal assembly of more than 10 people (Section 215 of the Criminal Code); holding activities at risk of spreading contagious diseases (emergency decree); obstructing public space (Section 385 of the Criminal Code); obstructing traffic (Section 114 of the Land Traffic Act); violating the cleanliness law (Section 19) and using loudspeakers without prior approval (Section 4).
The charge under Section 116 carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
Minutes later, Mr Panupong, known as “Mike Rayong”, one of the young people who held posters denouncing Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha visited the eastern province recently, was taken by police from the Ramkhamhaeng area to the same police station. He is named as the fifth suspect in the same case and faces the same charges as Mr Anon, who was listed seventh on the warrant. The names of the others are not known yet.
Local media reports said law enforcement officials could be targeting as many as 30 people in connection with rallies that have taken place at numerous sites around the country.
The arrests come just days after the inauguration of the Free People group, which grew out of the Free Youth group that began staging the protests three weeks ago.
The protesters, mainly university and high school studnts mobilised via Twitter and other social media, have been demanding the resignation of the current government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, an end to state harassment of government critics, and a new constitution.
Gen Prayut has said that efforts to change the charter will go ahead but he has also asked the protesters to tread carefully.
The Free People group has called for another rally on Aug 16. Mr Anon said earlier that he was planning to speak at a related rally on Sunday in Chiang Mai.
Mr Anon created a stir when he gave a speech at a rally near the Democracy Monument on Tuesday. In it, he touched on the relationship between the monarchy and the constitution.
As the first person to have spoken in public about the highly sensitive issue in several years, he insisted he meant well for the high institution, which he thinks needs to be within the framework of democracy with the King as head of state.
He made three proposals: abolish or amend laws expanding royal power which may infringe on the principles of democracy with the king as head of state; amend the lese majeste law in line with democracy and human rights; listen to the voice of rallying students and the public in order to arrive at solutions to social problems based on democratic principles.
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