BANGKOK - Fourteen Thai students were taken into custody early Saturday after staging an anti-coup rally on charges that could see them jailed for seven years, police said, as the ruling junta escalates its chokehold on dissent.
The pro-democracy campaigners are among the few activists that have dared to publicly challenge Thailand's military rulers, who imposed severe curbs on civil liberties after seizing power from an elected government last year.
Their arrests Friday followed a peaceful protest calling for an end to junta rule at Bangkok's Democracy Monument a day earlier, where spirited speeches and songs were met with claps and cheers from dozens of supporters.
Thailand's generals have banned all political gatherings and criticism of the junta, frequently arresting critics and censoring the media.
Colonel Chumphol Chanchanayothin, superintendent of a police station in the capital's historic area, said the students were taken to a remand prison in northern Bangkok in the early hours of Saturday.
They have each been charged with "violating national security", he told AFP, an offence under section 116 of Thailand's criminal code that carries up to seven years in jail. A lawyer for some of the activists and rights groups have described the charge as "sedition".
The students were also charged with "breaching the NCPO (junta) order" against public gatherings but "face a maximum of seven years in jail", Chumphol said.
'Escalation of repression'
The students arrested Friday study at universities in Bangkok and the northeast and are part of groups that have staged small but symbolic acts of protest against the military regime.
Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch told AFP the charges reflected "a serious escalation of repression" under the junta and showed it had "no intention" of returning democracy to the country.
"This is the most heavy-handed response by the military regime to peaceful assembly yet," he said.
"There is no space to express disagreement... what is waiting for Thailand is a deepening of dictatorship," he said, as the rights group called for all charges against the students to be dropped and for their immediate release.
Last month seven of the 14 charged participated in a prominent anti-coup rally to mark one year since the takeover in the capital, quashed only when police dragged away and held overnight dozens of students in angry scenes.
The other half of the detained group, who study in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, also staged an anti-coup rally last month and have been dubbed the "Magnificent Seven" on social media.
On Wednesday, one of the Bangkok activists from last month's protest was charged with illegal assembly for that rally, the same day the 14 students charged Friday filed complaints against police alleging maltreatment by authorities back in May.
Police did not charge the group of 14 then and unusually held back from the rally Thursday, which also drew dozens of journalists. They arrested them late Friday afternoon, hours after encircling a house where they had been seeking refuge.
Thailand's generals claim the May 2014 coup was essential to restore order to the country after months of often violent protests against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
But opponents say it was the latest manoeuvre by Bangkok-based royalist elites, backed by large swathes of the military, to scupper democracy in the kingdom.
The junta had promised to hold new elections within 15 months of the coup but the timetable has repeatedly slipped with polls no longer expected before September next year.