A Thai court on Wednesday acquitted five activists accused of obstructing the Queen’s motorcade at a protest in 2020, in a landmark judgment that ended the prospect of more severe punishment nearly three years after rare calls for reform of the powerful monarchy erupted in the kingdom.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which represented two of the activists, said a court in the capital Bangkok acquitted the defendants on all the charges, ruling the protesters were not aware of the incoming royal convoy.
“There was enormous tension in the room as we waited for the presiding judge to finish his verdict,” one of the defendants Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong, 24, told CNN. “But as soon as he reached his conclusion we all felt relieved that our beliefs and determination have been vindicated.”
If found guilty, the defendants had faced a minimum sentence of 16 years in prison for allegedly “violating the Queen’s liberty and her well-being.” Maximum sentences included life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
The royal institution is regarded by many in Thailand with deity-like reverence and even speaking openly about the monarchy was long considered taboo.
Protesters in 2020 were calling for amendments to Article 112 of the Criminal Code – Thailand’s strict lese majeste law that criminalizes criticism of the monarchy and makes any frank discussion of the subject fraught with risk.
Lese majeste convictions carry long prison terms and currently, anyone can bring a case, even if they aren’t connected to the alleged crime.
Thailand’s Move Forward Party, which won the most votes in Thailand’s May election, has pledged to amend the law.
What happened at the protest
The incident in October 2020 was a turning point in the youth-led mass demonstrations that had broken out across the country for months. Thousands of people had taken to the streets demanding democratic and military reforms, constitutional change, and – what was unprecedented in Thailand – reform of the monarchy.
On October 14, 2020, dozens of protesters had gathered outside Bangkok’s Government House when Queen’s Suthida’s motorcade drove past.
Video from the scene showed the crowd shouting and holding up the three-finger salute inspired by the Hunger Games movie franchise that became a symbol of the protests. Police were seen pushing back the demonstrators as the car, which also carried King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s youngest son, Prince Dipangkorn, slowly drove past.
The incident with the royal motorcade was cited by the government as one of the reasons for announcing an emergency decree that banned gatherings of more than five people and a nationwide ban on publishing and broadcasting news and information that incites fear among the public.
In defiance of that decree, thousands of demonstrators escalated their protests, with dozens arrested.
The five: Bunkueanun, Ekachai Hongkangwan, Suranat Paenprasert and two others were arrested on three charges for assaulting the Queen’s liberty, inciting chaos and obstructing traffic.
The most serious was Section 110, with those found guilty facing 16 years to a maximum life imprisonment for violence or attempted violence against the Queen, the heir-apparent or regent. If the actions are considered likely to endanger the Queen’s life, then the death penalty could be applied.
Bunkueanun confirmed to CNN that all defendants were cleared of the three charges.
The court in its ruling found that on the day of the incident, police did not manage the route of the royal procession properly and officers at the scene didn’t know which royal procession it was, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
When the protesters realized it was a royal procession, they allowed it to move through and there were no objects thrown or obstruction of the procession, the court found, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
Bunkueanun, who is studying International Relations at Mahidol University, said he was “relieved” with the verdict and called the judges “fair handed and very impartial.”
He told CNN the case has not put him off his activism, though he may give future street protests a second thought.
“My determination has not changed since then,” he said.
This story has been updated to clarify the role of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.