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Turbulent Thailand

Thai protest leader facing lese-majeste charges released on bail

Two leading activists still in jail despite deteriorating health

Protest leader Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul hugs a friend as she is released on bail from the Central Women's Correctional Institute in Bangkok on May 6.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thai protest leader Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul was granted bail on Thursday, after being held in pretrial detention for 59 days on lese-majeste charges. Two other leading pro-democracy activists remain in jail despite their deteriorating health.

Panusaya, who has been a key figure in Thailand's pro-democracy movement since mid-2020, was released from the Central Women's Correctional Institute.

Her bail was conditional on a pledge not to take part in activities that denounce the monarchy. Panusaya, who paid a 200,000 baht ($6,400) bond, is barred from leaving the country. The conditions of her bail were the same as those of two other leaders, Jatupat "Pai Dao Din" Boonpattararaksa and Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, who were released in late April.

Panusaya was scheduled for a medical checkup immediately after her release, as she suffered fatigue after going on a hunger strike to protest her pretrial detention and the government's denigration of free speech. She defiantly raised the three-finger salute -- a gesture adopted by pro-democracy protesters in Thailand and Myanmar -- from the front passenger seat of the car that took her to a hospital.

Thailand's lese-majeste law is considered the most draconian in the world. Those accused of violating Article 112 of the criminal code face up to 15 years in jail per offense, with consecutive terms possible. Anyone can lodge a complaint of lese- majeste with the police.

In January, a retired civil servant was sentenced to a record jail term of 43 years and six months after sharing an audio clip critical of the monarchy six years earlier. Her pretrial detention lasted much longer than Panusaya's -- nearly four years.

Six protest leaders remain in jail, accused of lese majeste, as of Friday. Among them are student activist Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak and human rights lawyer Arnon Nampha, who were among the first to publicly raise the issue of reforming the Thai monarchy, a subject that has been taboo in the kingdom for decades.

The two activists have not been released despite being in poor health. In solidarity with Panusaya, Parit went on a hunger strike for over a month and a half. After losing over 10 kg, he was admitted to a public hospital on April 30. He was sent back to a prison hospital on Thursday. Arnon tested positive for COVID-19 in jail on Wednesday, according to the Department of Corrections.

Thailand's pro-democracy movement gained steam last summer when the pandemic heightened frustration among many Thais over the failing economy, a widening income gap and human rights disparities between the rich and poor.

The movement's three core demands are the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet, constitutional amendments with public consultation and reform of the monarchy.

The protest movement's momentum peaked in October, having achieved few visible gains. It has become bogged down since then for three main reasons: a lack of unity among protest groups, COVID-19's resurgence and the government's use of the lese-majeste law to incite fear among participants.

With the protesters divided, public support waned amid the crackdown. Activist leaders have been charged with lese-majeste and other crimes. Although leaderless rallies still occur sporadically in Bangkok and other provinces the movement has lost traction, with much lower attendance compared with events staged last year.

Still, international human rights groups continue to speak out for the detained activists. "Thai authorities should immediately drop the cases against Parit, Panusaya and others unjustly charged for their peaceful pro-democracy protests. But at a minimum, they should be released on bail," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in April. "The Thai government should stop this witch hunt against peaceful dissenters and demonstrate respect for human rights by permitting all viewpoints," he added.

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