BANGKOK (AP) — A military court in Thailand freed 14 student activists from detention Tuesday ahead of their trial but said they still face sedition charges — and up to seven years in prison — for defying the junta’s ban on political gatherings.
The university students, 13 men and one woman, had been detained since their arrest on June 26 for leading a peaceful anti-coup rally in Bangkok.
The case has sparked international calls for their release and criticism of the military junta’s strict controls on freedom of speech and assembly. University professors and students joined dozens of protesters to show support for the students outside the court, across from the Grand Palace in Bangkok’s historic quarter.
Amid mounting pressure, the court Tuesday denied a request from police to extend the students’ pre-trial detention for 12 more days, said defense lawyer Kritsaadang Nootjaras. Under Thai law, people can be held a maximum of 48 days without formal charges.
“The court agreed with our request to release them on grounds that they have no intention to run away,” Kritsaadang told reporters outside the courthouse. Journalists were not allowed to attend the hearing. “They can now go back to their studies.”
The students face charges of sedition and violating the junta’s ban on political gatherings for leading a peaceful anti-coup rally in Bangkok last month. No date has been set for their trial.
Since overthrowing an elected government in May 2014, the nation’s military rulers have jailed opponents who dared to speak out against them. They have censored the media and forbidden open political debate. The junta’s curbs on freedoms include a ban on political gatherings of five or more people and orders for security-related offenses to be handled by military courts.
The military has spoken of holding national elections but has not said exactly when they could take place, and its latest constitutional draft would curb the powers of elected political leaders.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the students’ arrests “demonstrate the military junta’s unwillingness to ease its oppressive rule.”
The U.N. human rights office has called for the students’ release and urged the government to review its use of laws that limit freedom of expression and assembly.
The European Union has called the arrests “a disturbing development” and said civilians should not be tried in military courts.
The students’ case is the latest dilemma for the government, which has come under fire for the country’s long-ignored human trafficking violations and illegal activity in the lucrative fishing industry that could lead to an EU ban on imports from Thailand.
Associated Press Writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.