The United Nations human rights commission called on Thailand's military government Tuesday to release 14 student activists who were arrested last week after participating in protests against junta rule.
The Office of the High Commission for Human Rights released a statement urging the government to "promptly drop criminal charges" against the protesters. They were arrested Friday after joining three-day rallies calling for a return to democracy after last year's coup.
It said that "criminal prosecutions for peaceful assembly and expression that carry long prison terms are not necessary," warning that such moves might contravene Thailand's obligations under treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which it is a signatory.
Those arrested face up to seven years in jail on charges of sedition under article 116 of the penal code, as well as another six-month prison term for ignoring a military order prohibiting political gatherings of more than five people.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam insisted Tuesday that the students would be tried in a military court as required by the law, telling reporters that they had violated a government edict and a military-imposed order.
On Saturday, Human Rights Watch released a statement calling for the students' immediate release, saying their arrest signified the junta's "unwillingness to ease its oppressive rule."
"While insisting they aren't dictators, the Thai generals have used the military courts as a central feature of their crackdown against peaceful criticism and political dissent," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director.
Since coming into power in May 2014, Thailand's military government has cracked down on dissent and civil liberty. The military argues that such measures are necessary to ensure "national security" and a smooth transition back to democracy.
Human Rights Watch warned that the right to a fair trial was challenged due to all aspects of military courts functioning under Thailand's defense ministry.
According to HRW, at least 700 people -- mostly political dissidents -- have appeared before military courts since the coup against the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Meanwhile, at least 80 people have been arrested for organizing or joining in gatherings exceeding the permitted number of participants.
Martial law was declared shortly before the May 22 coup, with the junta's National Council for Peace and Order replacing civilian courts with military ones-where there is no right to appeal -- for some offenses.