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Leaders of new Thai party charged over Facebook speech

Future Forward party founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and two top members face hefty fines and jail if convicted.

Authorities in Thailand have charged the leader and two senior members of a newly-formed political party for allegedly spreading false information about the ruling military government on Facebook.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 39-year-old tycoon and the founder of the Future Forward party, along with the two members, reported on Monday to a police station in the capital, Bangkok.

The three leaders of the liberal party, which aims to remove the influence of the military over Thai politics, were charged under the Computer Crime Act, considered draconian by government critics for its denial of freedom of speech online.

They are accused of giving false information in a June 29 speech by Thanathorn that was posted on Facebook, in which they had alleged that the military government was recruiting members of major political parties to join new parties set up in support of it.

The charges came a week after the military government partially lifted its ban on political activities, put in place since coming into power in May 2014, to allow parties to convene meetings and recruit members.

After being questioned and fingerprinted by police, Thanathorn denied the allegations in comments made to reporters.

"The use of the Computer Crimes Act is used with the objective to silence us, threaten us, to make politics of fear happen in this country," he said.

Political campaigning remains banned in Thailand despite the approaching 2019 general elections, tentatively set by the military government for February following several postponements.

'Politically motivated'

If convicted under the law, the Future Forward trio face hefty fines and up to five years in jail. The military government-scripted Thai constitution bans anyone convicted of a criminal offence from running as a legislator.

"The charge is politically motivated," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political science professor at Kyoto University and a prominent critic of the military government. "It's a cheap ploy to eliminate political opponents of the state."

Thanathorn's party said it would continue its campaigning before its formal launch onto the political stage on October 1.

"We are not afraid. We will fight the case and continue our political activities," said spokesperson Pannika Wanich.

Thanathorn's legal woes come just months after he launched his political career, hoping to win votes among a public wearied by the 12-year power struggle between a pro-military old guard and allies of billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The young politician, whose family owns the country's largest car parts manufacturer, attracted some comparisons to other "outsider" politicians making waves around the globe, such as France's Emmanuel Macron.

Meanwhile, the Pheu Thai party, which had formed the government that was toppled in 2014, is yet to reveal who its leader will be in advance of the polls.

Former premier Yingluck Shinawatra, who led that government, joined her brother Thaksin in self-exile last year just before a court found her guilty of criminal malfeasance during her time in office.

On Wednesday, Thailand's monarchy endorsed two laws that would pave the way for parliamentary elections no later than May 2019.

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