Dozen Thai student activists charged with royal defamation

BANGKOK (AFP): A dozen Thai pro-democracy student activists were charged with royal defamation and sedition on Thursday (July 22), their lawyers said, over a rally last year that demanded reforms to Thailand's unassailable monarchy.

The pro-democracy movement, which has been largely led by student activists, kicked off a year ago due to public discontent over Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha's administration.

One key protest demand that emerged was monarchy reforms, a once-taboo issue that spilled into public discussion due to the student-led rallies that drew tens of thousands at their peak.

At one such protest in October last year, thousands marched to the German embassy in defiance of the king, who has spent long periods of time in Germany.

"All 12 have been charged with 112 (lese majeste) and 116 (sedition), with the youngest being 20 years old," said the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, which represents the students.

"The main reason for the charges is the rally and speeches delivered in front of the German embassy."

Lawyers are requesting bail for the students.

Abolishing Thailand's draconian lese majeste law -- which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years per charge -- is among one of the key demands in the pro-democracy movement.

Critics have long said the law is broadly overused to target political opponents.

Scores of protesters have been hit with the royal insult law, with the most prominent figures earning multiple charges for different protests.

Other key demands of the movement include the resignation of Prayut -- a former military chief who masterminded the 2014 coup -- and for a rewrite to Thailand's military-scripted constitution.

But in recent months, as Thais weather a deadly Covid-19 surge, protesters have pivoted their grievances to Prayut's handling of the pandemic.

This week, the hashtag "Prayut Get Out" started trending as Thailand placed more provinces under a partial lockdown amid a record number of new infections on a near-daily basis.

Currently there are more than 453,000 Covid-19 cases and 3,697 deaths -- the bulk of the toll detected since April after an outbreak in night clubs frequented by Bangkok's political elite.

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