Protests loom in Thailand after court ruling fuels anger

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.

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