BANGKOK – A Thai court is to deliver a verdict Wednesday in the case of five people accused of impeding the queen’s motorcade during a pro-democracy march in 2020, an offense that if judged egregious could bring a death sentence.
Hundreds of criminal cases have arisen from the student-led protests in recent years, but the five defendants are the only ones charged with violating Article 110 of the Criminal Code, which in part prohibits an “act to cause harm to the liberty of the queen, the heir apparent and the regent.” There is uncertainty whether that part of the law has been used in any previous case.
The incident in question followed a rally in Bangkok on Oct. 14, 2020, the anniversary of a popular uprising in 1973 that led to the fall of a decadelong military dictatorship.
As hundreds of protesters marched to Government House, where the prime minister’s offices are, a royal motorcade with a limousine carrying Queen Suthida, wife of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and his son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, then 15, appeared on the same route.
Images posted on social media don’t show any clearly threatening behavior toward the queen’s car, though several people in the crowd hold up the pro-democracy movement’s three-finger salute. Loud but mostly indistinct shouting can be heard from the crowd as the motorcade, bracketed by police officers, slowly wends its way through.
It was a stunning scene for Thailand. A royal motorcade usually has tight security, with routes closed to the public long in advance.
Student activist Bunkueanun Paothong, widely known by his nickname Francis, is one of the defendants, and holds the highest profile because of his eagerness to speak about the case.
The indictment accuses Francis, 23, and his fellow defendants of breaking away from the march to urge fellow protesters to block the motorcade. It also alleges they scuffled with police officers who were securing the car's path.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Francis denied knowing a royal motorcade would be in the vicinity and said he urged people to move away from the queen's car once he saw it.
He said the charge alleges he conspired with the four others to harm the queen’s liberty, “but if one had seen the evidence, if one had been there on that day, they would realize that what I did there was nothing short of trying to avoid that very same outcome. I have to say it again now: I did not intend to harm her.”
Francis surrendered to police two days later and was charged under Article 110. The minimum punishment for a conviction is 16 years imprisonment, but the death penalty or life imprisonment is possible if it is proven that a defendant caused the queen’s life to be in danger.
The law reinforces the exalted status of Thailand's royal family, as does the more frequently employed lese majeste law, which makes insulting the monarch, his immediate family and the regent punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
Critics have long alleged that the lese majeste, or royal defamation, law — commonly known as Article 112 — is often used to quash political dissent. The charge has been filed against many pro-democracy activists who like Francis protested against the military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Devotion to the monarchy has long been a pillar of Thai society and was considered untouchable until recent years. Sharp political schisms that began appearing two decades ago affected its reputation, and the public debate on the topic has grown louder, particularly among young people seeking change.
Acquittals are rare for those charged with offenses against the monarchy.
Kritsadang Nutcharat of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said that although he believes the evidence is in favor of the defendants in this case, there is no guarantee the court will agree.
“I think that there’s a chance that the verdict will be influenced by social trends, and the emotions, feelings of the judges, prosecutors, or society, about whether these people should be found guilty or not,” he said.
Judges in Thailand have a reputation for serving as a conservative bulwark protecting the royal institution.
David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based American scholar who has written extensively on the Thai monarchy, said the verdict in the case couldn’t be coming at a worse time for the ruling conservative establishment.
“It will inevitably highlight all those anxieties and worries that many, many Thais have about the institution and its role within democracy in Thailand,” he told AP in a video call.
The verdict is being issued just weeks after a sound election defeat of the governing coalition led by Prayuth — who came to power in a 2014 coup and was returned to office in a 2019 election.
The progressive Move Forward Party, which captured the most seats and most popular votes in the May election, ran on a platform vowing reform of several institutions, including amending the lese majeste law.
Francis said he remains optimistic and is ready for the verdict, whatever the outcome.
“At least I still have some kind of history attached to my name already, so even if it comes to, like, the worst of it all, I don’t mind,” he said.
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