A student activist has been arrested and charged under Thailand’s strict laws against insulting the monarchy after he was accused of defacing portraits of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, his lawyer and police said on Thursday.
Sirichai Nathuang, 21, a student at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, is one of at least 40 activists charged with “lese majeste” since November amid protests demanding the resignation of former junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The youth-led movement has also broken longstanding taboos by demanding reforms to the monarchy, which led to resumption of use of the lese majeste law, which had not been invoked since 2018. Breaches of the law, or section 112 of the criminal code, carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison.
Portraits of the king are ubiquitous in city streets in Thailand, as well as most schools and businesses.
Sirichai was accused of spray-painting messages on some of those portraits earlier this week and was arrested on Wednesday night, said Noraset Nanongtoom of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group.
“Sirichai denied all accusations and will fight the case,” Noraset told Reuters, adding his client was released on bail.
Defacing a royal portrait was almost unheard of during the reign of the king’s father, who died in 2016 after 70 years on the throne.
Noraset said Sirichai is accused by police of spraying messages calling for the abolition of the lese majeste law.
He said his client was the first of the protesters to be arrested under the law, while about 40 others were charged but not arrested.
Police deputy spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen said police acted in accordance with the law. “There are no double standards,” he said.
A government spokesman last week said use of the law against some of the protesters was justified.
The opposition Move Forward Party said on Thursday it would seek to amend the lese majeste law when parliament reconvenes.
“The use of Section 112 in the current situation will only worsen the relationship between the king and the people in a democratic society,” party secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon said in a statement.