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U.N., EU urge Thailand to free student protesters, junta leader unmoved

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The United Nations and European Union on Tuesday urged Thailand to release 14 students arrested for holding peaceful demonstrations against the country’s military government, but the leader of the junta remained unmoved.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha answers questions from journalists after a ceremony marking the National Anti-Human Trafficking Day at the Government House in Bangkok June 5, 2015. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who led the coup against an elected government last May, said he would not bow to international pressure.

The 14 students that were arrested on Friday for holding several demonstrations are part of a network of pro-democracy groups that have held demonstrations in Bangkok and other provinces.

They had also participated in a protest to mark the first anniversary of the coup on May 22. Police arrested 40 students during that protest, but subsequently released them all. Prayuth voiced impatience that some had continued to protest.

“Thai law is Thai law. I gave these students a chance,” the leader of the junta told reporters.

The students have been charged with sedition, a national security offence, and could face up to seven years in prison if a military court finds them guilty.

The junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, has banned public gatherings.

The United Nations Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia (OHCHR) issued a statement urging Thailand to promptly drop the charges.

The EU called the arrests a “disturbing development”.

The 2014 coup ousted the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thailand has been divided for a decade between the country’s traditional establishment in the capital and the south supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was himself ousted by the army in 2006.

The students are being held at a Bangkok prison where dozens of relatives and friends gathered on Tuesday.

Some held Post-it notes that read: We don’t want military courts. Others shouted “fight, fight”.

Wiboon Boonpatararaksa, 59, the father of one of the jailed students, said he came to give his son encouragement.

“What he and his friends did was of their own initiative and we will stand by them,” he said.

Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore