May 11, 2016 / 4:52 AM / 4 years ago

Thailand defends rights restrictions at U.N. review

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand on Wednesday defended its curbs on freedom of expression at a review of its rights record by the U.N. Human Rights Council, saying the measures were aimed at “those who stir up violence”.

A student activist is detained during a silent protest after Thailand's election commission filed charges against a group for posting "foul and strong" comments online criticising a military-backed draft constitution in Bangkok, Thailand, April 27, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

At a time of fresh arrests of online critics accused of criticizing Thailand’s junta, U.N. member states attending the review in Geneva expressed concern over the deteriorating rights situation since the military took power in a May 2014 coup.

Some U.N. members urged the military to review controversial laws, such as a royal insults law, that rights groups say have increasingly been used to silence critics.

Thailand should “allow all Thai people to fully participate in the political process,” the United States said in a brief statement to the council, and called for the elimination of “mandatory minimum sentences for lese-majeste”.

The restrictions were “meant for those who stir up violence”, a representative of Thailand’s justice ministry said in a live broadcast of the meeting, responding to the concerns raised at the review, the country’s first since 2011.

The military seized power in May 2014, saying it had to end a bitter cycle of political unrest that had rocked Thailand since 2006, when the army ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Rights groups say the junta has tightened its grip on power and severely repressed rights in the past year. It has jailed critics, introduced new laws aimed at curbing freedom of speech, censored the media and restricted political debate.

The military government has stepped up prosecutions of those accused of defamation, handing down harsher sentences.

The latest crackdown comes as the military government prepares to put a widely criticized military-written constitution to the public in August.

Thai authorities on Tuesday released on bail eight activists arrested in April over Facebook comments critical of the junta and the draft constitution.

Two of the eight activists face separate charges of royal insult. They were charged on Wednesday with insulting the revered monarchy in private Facebook messages.

Thailand’s strict royal defamation law makes it a crime to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent. Those found guilty face prison terms of up to 15 years for each offense.

Thailand is one of 14 countries being questioned at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a cyclical review of the human rights record of the 193 United Nations members.

More than a decade of political strife has seen at times violent street protests by both Thaksin’s supporters and their opponents.

In their closing remarks, Thai officials told the council they expected to adopt some of its recommendations on Friday, when its current session ends.

Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez

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