Thai police arrest first anti-government protest leader

BANGKOK - Sonthiyarn Chuenruethai-naitham, owner and director of T-news agency, yesterday became the first anti-government protest leader to be arrested. He was having a meal alone in the Central Lat Phrao shopping complex when apprehended by police.

Sonthiyarn, a former leader of the now-defunct yellow-shirt movement, was charged with sedition and escorted to the Border Patrol Police Region 1 facility in Pathum Thani province, where he will be detained.

His arrest was the first of a protest leader, and also the first under the state of emergency laws.

"I'm not troubled by the arrest, as my roles in the anti-government movement were protected by the Constitution," he said shortly after beIng arrested.

Assistant police chief Pol Lt Gen Winai Thongsong said Sonthiyarn did not resist arrest when confronted by the police while he was dining.

"He is entitled to request a temporary release through his lawyer, but the final decision on whether it would be granted would rest with the police," he added.

Tarit Pengdith, a member of the government's anti-protest operations unit, the Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order (CMPO), said Sonthiyarn was the second-most important protest figure after core leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

Tarit described Sonthiyarn as one of the brains behind the running of the entire anti-government movement, while also managing financial aid and other assistance from its sponsors.

"He also acts as a contact in dealing with groups of individuals who support the movement behind the scenes," Tarit added.

"Sonthiyarn is also a key sponsor himself. His name is also on the list [of sponsors of the rallies] to be made public today," said Tarit, who is also head of the Department of Special Investigation.

Sonthiyarn's initial detention lasts seven days, and can be extended seven days at a time but not more than 30 days. The first report of his arrest must be sent to a court within 48 hours.

Meanwhile, a People's Democratic Reform Committee leader, Sathit Wongnongtaey, vowed to obtain temporary release for Sonthiyarn. He said he learned that the CMPO was now planning to seek arrest warrants for pro-PDRC academics who spoke on rally stages.

"These academics have done nothing wrong. The CMPO's plan to arrest them is an act of intimidation, which threatens people's rights in a blanket manner, as a scare tactic," he said.

Arrest warrants have been issued for 19 rally leaders, including Suthep Thaugsuban, secretary-general of People's Democratic Reform Committee, for their involvement in the rallies, but Sonthiyarn is the first to be detained.

Earlier, caretaker Labour Minister and CMPO director Chalerm Yoobamrung said Sonthiyarn was the only wanted leader residing in a condominium.

The 18 other leaders had taken refuge at the protest sites, where they were being shielded by protesters, he said.

Other "stars" of the rally are also facing arrest, Chalerm said.

"I want to tell Mr Suthep that I will no longer tolerate what he has done, laying siege to many government offices and chasing away officials who wanted to work. That's unacceptable, and I will use the law to handle the situation," he said.