Supporters of anti-coup activists gather outside a police station, cheering them on and holding up photos of the protesters who were pulled away by police last month in Bangkok, on June 24 (AFP Photo/Nicolas Asfouri)
The European Union hit out at Thailand's junta on Tuesday for pursuing sedition charges against a group of anti-coup student activists, describing their arrest and prosecution in a military court as a "disturbing development".
The 14 detained students are part of a small network of pro-democracy campaigners who have dared publicly to challenge Thailand's military rulers after they seized power from an elected government last year and severely curbed civil liberties.
They were detained on Friday after holding a protest at Bangkok's Democracy Monument the previous day and were charged with sedition, which carries up to seven years in jail.
Their case is being handled by a military court, which usually holds hearings behind closed doors. There is no right of appeal once convicted.
"The arrests of 14 students on the basis of charges brought against them for peacefully demonstrating … is a disturbing development," the EU said in a statement Tuesday.
"Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms must be upheld, and military courts should not be used to try civilians," the statement added.
The EU condemnation was echoed Tuesday by the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR), which released a statement calling on Thailand to "drop criminal charges against" the protesters and release them from custody.
The students can be held by police for up to 84 days in pre-trial detention, although their incarceration must be renewed every 12 days by a court. The next hearing at Bangkok's military court is expected next week.
Junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha swatted away the growing international condemnation of the arrests.
There is "no need to explain... the law is the law, Thailand is Thailand," he told reporters.
Sirikan Charoensiri, one of a team of lawyers representing the students, said the students were refusing to request bail in protest at being tried in a military court.
"They reject the military court's jurisdiction," she said, adding that they have remained "in good spirits" since their arrest.
"It's really quite serious to charge peaceful protesters with sedition. Their activities were entirely peaceful," she added.
The group's refusal to seek bail appears to have caught the military government off guard.
"Normally those who were arrested must seek bail so why do these students not want to get bail?" Anusit Kunakorn, secretary-general of the National Security Council, asked reporters Tuesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said it was "impossible for students to demand that they want to be tried in civilian court".
Rights groups have described the arrests as a serious escalation in repression by the junta.
Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker and the chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, described the arrests as a "disgrace" in a recent statement.
But police and senior junta officials have vowed to go after those supporting the students.
Officers in the northern city of Chiang Mai confirmed Tuesday that three people who protested on Monday in support of the students were detained.
"They were released after talks with army and police in which they said they will not protest again," local officer Major Prasong Nafun said.
Thailand's generals claim the May 2014 coup was essential to restore order after months of often violent protests against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
But opponents say it was the latest maneuver by Bangkok-based royalist elites, backed by large swathes of the military, to scupper democracy and protect their interests.
The coup was the latest crisis in the country's bitterly divided politics that roughly pits the capital's elites against working-class voters in the northern provinces who are loyal to ousted premiers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck.
The Shinawatras' parties have won every election since 2001 and are known for their pro-poor policies. AFP