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Rights groups urge release of Thai activists held for lese majeste

Rights groups on Monday (Aug 18) called for the immediate release of two activists charged with breaching Thailand's strict royal defamation laws during a university play.

BANGKOK: Rights groups on Monday (Aug 18) called for the immediate release of two activists charged with breaching Thailand's strict royal defamation laws during a university play. The pair - named only as Patiwat, 23, and Pornthip, 25 - were arrested separately last week over their roles in an October 2013 play at Bangkok's Thammasat University to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a student-led uprising.

"They were charged with lese majeste for acting in the 'Wolf's Bride' play," Tanathorn Tananont, of the Human Rights Lawyers Association told AFP. "Police said the script was not appropriate," he said, declining to give further details of how they are alleged to have breached the royal insult law.

They are the latest people to fall foul of Thailand's lese majeste laws, which carry maximum jail sentences of 15 years for each conviction of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, is revered by many Thais and protected by tough defamation laws.

Patiwat, who is a student, was arrested on Friday at an army camp in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, while Pornthip was taken into custody a day later at Hat Yai in Thailand's south. They are being held in Bangkok, Tanathorn said, adding a court had denied them bail. Bangkok police refused to give details of the case when contacted by AFP, saying it was a "secret".

Campaigners say the number of royal insult cases has risen sharply in the wake of the army coup on May 22. They are concerned that hearings now fall within the jurisdiction of military courts. In a statement on its website on Friday, the Asian Human Rights Commission expressed "grave concern about the rapid decline of human rights protections and denial of freedom of expression" since the coup.

Before the coup, calls for reform of the lese majeste laws had grown following several high-profile convictions but political debate in public has been muzzled by martial law. On Aug 1, a 28-year-old musician was sentenced to 15 years in jail after he was found guilty of posting insulting messages about the monarchy on Facebook.