A court in Thailand on Wednesday acquitted a student activist and four other people of impeding the motorcade of the country’s queen during pro-democracy demonstrations in 2020, an offense that could have seen them sentenced to 16 years in prison or even the death penalty.
The Bangkok Criminal Court verdict was rendered in a case brought under a little-used law that targets actions intended “to harm the liberty of the queen, the heir apparent and the regent.” Legal experts were unable to recall any previous prosecutions under the law.
The verdict represented a rare legal victory for Thailand’s pro-democracy movement, which has often faced an uphill battle in the conservative courts, which are widely seen as representing a bulwark against political and social change.
After the verdict was read, people in the courtroom clapped and cheered, as the smiling defendants hugged each other, and the judge had to call for order.
The defendants thanked the court, with one, Ekachai Hongkangwan, saying he always had confidence the courts would be just, and that the judges showed that people can still rely on the justice system.
The case stemmed from an incident on October 14, 2020, on the fringes of a rally in Bangkok that was calling for democratic reforms, including over the privileges of the country’s powerful monarchy.
One of the defendants, 23-year-old international relations student Bunkueanun Paothong — widely known by his nickname Francis — had insisted all along the case was misguided.
He had denied knowing a royal motorcade was due to pass by, and said that when he saw it he urged people to move away.
Prosecutors had alleged that he knew the royal motorcade, with a limousine carrying Queen Suthida, wife of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and his son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, then 15, was due to pass the area and that he and his fellow defendants had broken away to block its route.
They also charged that they tussled with police officers who were securing the path, then urged other protestors to sit in the road to stop its passage.
The court ruled that an examination of the evidence showed there was no clear announcement to the public that there would be a motorcade in the area and that the defendants were likely unable to see the motorcade approaching because there were layers of police surrounding the cars.
It said police officers at the scene told the protesters to make way for a royal motorcade and didn’t say it was the queen’s. The protesters briefly blocked the way because they mistakenly believed the police were trying to disperse their rally, but they quickly backed off once they realized the motorcade was there, the court said.
The court concluded the incident was likely caused by miscommunication, not an intentional attempt to impede the motorcade.
The court acquitted the five on all charges, even a minor one of blocking traffic, an offense often brought against those arrested for involvement in street protests.
The royal family is traditionally revered in Thailand. Its sacrosanct status is backed by harsh defamation laws. But ever since the ascension of King Vajiralongkorn in 2016, there’s been growing disquiet over the extent of this privileged position.
Beginning in 2020, large-scale protests challenged the status quo. In unprecedented scenes, tens of thousands gathered, again and again, to demand a list of changes. A combination of the pandemic and the arrest of protest leaders tamped down the dissent but it didn’t go away.
Lawyer Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said after the court session concluded that she was happy the five defendants, who always insisted on their innocence, received justice, and that the case was handled in a straightforward way strictly based on evidence that was presented.