Thai protesters kick off weekend of rallies

Thailand has seen near-daily gatherings of youth-led groups since mid-July demanding the resignation of PM Prayut Chan-O-Cha. (AFP)
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Updated 19 September 2020

Thai protesters kick off weekend of rallies

  • Thailand has seen near-daily gatherings of youth-led groups since mid-July
  • Some are also demanding reforms to the kingdom’s ultra-wealthy and powerful monarchy

BANGKOK: Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Bangkok Saturday as a rally expected to draw tens of thousands of people kicked off calling for PM Prayut Chan-O-Cha to step down and demanding reforms to the monarchy.
Thailand has seen near-daily gatherings of youth-led groups since mid-July demanding the resignation of Prayut, the former army chief behind the 2014 coup, and a complete overhaul of his administration.
Some are also demanding reforms to the kingdom’s ultra-wealthy and powerful monarchy — a once-taboo topic in Thailand due to its tough royal defamation laws.
The burgeoning movement, partly inspired by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, remains largely leaderless.
But the weekend’s demonstration is organized by students of Bangkok’s Thammasat University — a group that has been among the most vocal about the royal family’s role in Thailand.
A crowd of several hundred gathered before noon at the locked gates of the university, demanding to be let in. Protesters chanted “Down with dictatorship, long live democracy!” and “Prayut get out!”
“If you don’t open, we will break in,” protesters yelled, before forcing the gates open — despite student leaders calling for calm — allowing hundreds to flow into the campus.
The demonstration was later expected to move on to the historic Sanam Luang field in front of the royal palace, where protesters plan to spend the night.
“We are fighting for more democracy,” prominent student activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul said on the eve of the protest.
“The plan is not to destroy the monarchy but to modernize it, to adapt it to our society.”
On Sunday, demonstrators are expected to march to the nearby Government House — a move authorities have warned against.
The show of force is expected to be the largest since the 2014 coup — student activists are hoping for a turnout of more than 50,000 supporters.
Police said some 10,000 officers would be deployed around the area.
A cycle of violent protests and coups has long plagued Thailand, with the arch-royalist military stepping in to stage more than a dozen putsches since the end of royal absolutism in 1932.
The latest wave of student-led demonstrations has largely been peaceful.
But unprecedented calls from some protesters for frank discussions about the monarchy have sent shockwaves through the kingdom.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn sits at the apex of Thai power, buttressed by the kingdom’s military and billionaire clans, and commands a fortune estimated to be worth up to $60 billion.
The student demands include greater accounting of the palace’s finances, the abolition of royal defamation laws and a call for the king to remain outside of politics.
They also want a rewrite of the 2017 military-scripted constitution, which they say tilted last year’s election in Prayut’s favor, and for the government to stop “harassing” political opponents.
So far, authorities have arrested more than two dozen activists, charging them with sedition before releasing them on bail.
The weekend demonstrations will prove a test for the pro-democracy movement, analysts say, which has gained momentum online thanks to the students’ savvy use of social media.
“A critical mass would send a clear message that the protesters are a force to be reckoned with,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University.
Prayut has warned Thailand could be “engulfed in flames” if the movement goes too far.
But he vowed authorities would use “soft measures” on the protesters “because they are children.”
The top-trending hashtag on Thai Twitter late Friday was “Sept 19, we take back the power of the people.”
Around the world, Thais are expected to gather in solidarity, with weekend protests planned in a dozen countries, including Germany, Australia and the United States.


Two accomplices in Kenya’s Westgate attack jailed for 33 and 18 years

Updated 30 October 2020

Two accomplices in Kenya’s Westgate attack jailed for 33 and 18 years

  • Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hassan Hussein Mustafa, both 31, were found guilty on October 7 of conspiring with and supporting the four assailants
  • The convicted men were in regular contact with the attackers who at midday on September 21, 2013, stormed the upscale Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital

NAIROBI: A Kenyan court Friday handed prison terms of 33 and 18 years respectively to two men accused of conspiring with the Al-Shabab extremists who attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013, killing 67 people.

Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hassan Hussein Mustafa, both 31, were found guilty on October 7 of conspiring with and supporting the four assailants from the Somalia-based extremist group who died in what was then Kenya’s worst terrorist attack in 15 years.

The accused asked the judge for leniency, saying they had already served seven years behind bars and had family to care for.

“Despite mitigation by their defense lawyers on their innocence, the offense committed was serious, devastating, destructive, that called for a punishment by the court,” Chief Magistrate Francis Andayi told a Nairobi courtroom.

He sentenced the men to 18 years for conspiracy and 18 for supporting extremists, but ordered they serve both terms together. Abdi was also given an additional 15 years for two counts of possessing extremist propaganda material on his laptop.

He will serve 26 years and Mustafa 11, taking into account their pre-trial detention.

The convicted men were in regular contact with the attackers who at midday on September 21, 2013, stormed the upscale Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital and began throwing grenades and firing indiscriminately on shoppers and business owners.

A four-day siege ensued — much of it broadcast live on television — during which Kenyan security forces tried to flush out the gunmen and take back the high-end retail complex.

Although there was no specific evidence Abdi and Mustafa had provided material help, the court was satisfied their communication with the attackers amounted to supporting the armed rampage, and justified the guilty verdict for conspiracy.

The marathon trial began in January 2014. A third accused was acquitted of all charges.
The Westgate attack was claimed by Al-Shabab in retaliation for Kenya intervening military over the border in Somalia, where the extremist group was waging a bloody insurgency against the fragile central government.

Kenya is a major contributor of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which in 2011 drove Al-Shabab out of Mogadishu and other urban strongholds after a months-long offensive.

In a car the attackers drove to Westgate, police found evidence of newly-activated SIM cards used by the gunmen. Their communications were traced, including calls to Mohamed Ahmed Abdi and Hassan Hussein Mustafa.

A fourth defendant, Adan Mohammed Abdikadir, was acquitted in early 2019 for lack of evidence.

The Westgate attack was the deadliest incident of violent extremism on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, which killed 213 people.

But since the assault on the shopping complex, Al-Shabab has perpetrated further atrocities in Kenya against civilian targets.

In April 2015, gunmen entered Garissa University and killed 148 people, almost all of them students. Many were shot point blank after being identified as Christians.

In January 2019, the militants struck Nairobi again, hitting the Dusit Hotel and surrounding offices and killing 21 people.

Al-Shabab warned in a January statement that Kenya “will never be safe” as long as its troops were stationed in Somalia, and threatened further attacks on tourists and US interests.

That same month, Al-Shabab attacked a US military base in northeast Kenya in a cross-border raid, killing three Americans and destroying a number of aircraft.