Updated: March 16, 2021 04:02 AM GMT
A Thai pro-democracy protester makes the three-finger salute as he stands in front of riot police during a demonstration in Bangkok on March 13. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)
Thai authorities are seeking to expand prison spaces to accommodate the increasing number of political prisoners, according to the country’s justice minister.
Both the Bangkok Remand Prison and the city’s Klong Prem Central Prison have become overcrowded with the detention of pro-democracy activists so new spaces will need to be found to house further political prisoners, said Somsak Thepsuthin.
“We are discussing finding a larger area that can accommodate more people for everyone’s convenience,” he told reporters.
He stopped short, however, of suggesting that a new prison should be created to house political prisoners alone. “Everyone should be treated equally,” Somsak stressed.
In recent weeks Thai authorities have stepped up their campaign of legal harassment against numerous leaders and members of a grassroots youth-led democracy movement that has been demanding sweeping political reforms in a country ruled by a powerful military allied with the palace and a super-rich business elite.
Nearly 400 activists, most of whom are in their teens and twenties, are facing a variety of criminal charges, including such serious offenses as sedition and royal defamation, which can be penalized with decades in prison.
At least 13 of the accused are minors, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a non-profit group that provides legal aid to people wrongfully accused.
At least 60 pro-democracy activists have been charged with royal defamation, many of the repeatedly. Each count of royal defamation carries a minimum penalty of three years in prison and a maximum penalty of 15 years.
Several prominent leaders who have been detained for weeks have been denied bail repeatedly as they are awaiting trial in what rights activists say is a clear violation of their basic rights.
Last week a 22-year-old man was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for violating Thailand’s draconian Computer Crime Act for posting comments on Facebook criticizing Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn last year.
In addition to sweeping political changes, many young protesters have been demanding a reform of the Thai monarchy, which is officially deemed as sacrosanct and beyond all reproach.
The country’s powerful military staged two of its recent coups, in 2006 and 2014, mainly on grounds that it had to defend the royal institution from politicians with secret republican tendencies, although no evidence was ever produced of plots to overthrow the monarchy.
The youth-led democracy movement has been calling for further constitutional limits on the influence of the monarchy, but their calls have been met with repression.
Young demonstrators have also criticized King Vajiralongkorn for what they see as his unorthodox lifestyle, including his penchant for appearing with both his wife and consort side by side at official functions.
In response to their open criticism of the monarch, many young Thais have been slapped with charges of royal defamation.
International human rights groups have condemned Thai authorities for resorting to such heavy-handed tactics to silence dissenting voices.
“Amid peaceful student-led protests calling for political reform and an end to state harassment of government critics, the Thai police are arresting many students and activists, who may face years behind bars simply for peacefully gathering,” Amnesty International has noted.