BANGKOK (AP) — The U.N. human rights office called Tuesday on Thailand to release 14 student activists and drop the charges that were filed against them for holding a peaceful anti-coup rally.
The university students, 13 male and one female, were arrested on Friday on the charges of sedition and violating the junta's ban on political gatherings for holding the rally in Bangkok last Thursday.
The military, which took over power from a civilian government in a coup last May, has banned political gatherings of five people or more and ordered security-related offenses to be handled by the military courts.
The students were issued arrest warrants for having conducted peaceful rallies in the capital and in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen last month to mark the first anniversary of the coup. Each student is facing a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
The U.N. Human Rights Office for South East Asia also asked the government to review its use of laws that limit freedom of expression and assembly.
"OHCHR is concerned that criminal prosecutions for peaceful assembly and expression that carry long prison terms are not necessary or proportional," the office said in its statement.
The European Union called the arrests "a disturbing development" and said civilians should not be tried in military courts.
"The EU believes in the right of all to express peacefully their opinions... Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms must be upheld," it said in the statement.
Since last year's coup, the military government has cracked down on dissenters and critics, some of whom have fled the country.
Deputy government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the government does not have a problem with the students but they must obey the law.
"Everyone has to be under the law. Either they are soldiers, police, civilians or students. There is no excuse," Sansern said.
Interim Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he did not have to clarify the issue with the EU and that Thais must be under the Thai law.
"I have to thank the students and other agencies, which are not these 14 students. There are a lot of other good students. Wherever I go, they would come to praise me," he told reporters. "But these (arrested) students only wanted democracy and election."
The military has spoken of holding national elections but has not said exactly when, and its latest constitutional draft would curb the powers of elected political leaders.