Thai court frees student constitution protesters

BANGKOK (AP) — A court in Thailand on Tuesday ordered the release of seven students who were arrested last month for distributing leaflets urging people to vote against a proposed new constitution in a referendum next month.

The Bangkok Military Court ordered their release because police have completed their investigation of the June 23 protest, said an observer for the legal aid group iLaw, Yingcheep Atchanont. They still face several charges pending prosecutors’ acceptance of the case.

The Aug. 7 referendum is on a constitution drafted under the military government that took power in a May 2014 coup. Critics say the draft is undemocratic, but are constrained from campaigning against it by very restrictive laws that could send them to prison for 10 years.

Despite the threat, opposition to the draft charter has risen in recent weeks, with supporters of the civilian government that was ousted by the army taking a prominent role. The government has issued many threats against such critics but not acted consistently against them.

The students are to be released Wednesday. Suspects may be held a maximum of 48 days pending prosecution, but police must seek an extension from the court every 12 days.

Thirteen people were arrested for the protest by the New Democracy Movement in a Bangkok suburb, but six were freed earlier on bail. The seven others refused to post bail, insisting they did not recognize the legitimacy of the legal proceedings.

The protesters were arrested on charges of violating bans on political gatherings of more than five people and campaigning against the draft constitution. They also were charged with refusing to be fingerprinted and not showing their national identity cards when arrested.

They remained defiant outside the court Tuesday in brown prison uniforms and shackles. “Voting no is a right, not an illegal act,” they shouted on their way inside after being brought by a van.

“They have voiced their opinion on the weakness of the constitution, which is the same thing that many politicians have done, same as what the military has done, same as what the Election Commission has done,” said Krisadang Nutcharas, the lawyer representing the seven students.

Outside the court, a large group of supporters handed out pamphlets and stickers urging the authorities to drop charges against the students. Observers from foreign embassies and a number of human rights organizations attended the hearing.