BANGKOK — A military court in Thailand said Tuesday it will release 14 student activists from detention but they will still face sedition charges — and the prospect of years in prison — for defying the junta's ban on political gatherings.
The university students, 13 men and one woman, have been detained since their arrest on June 26 in Bangkok after leading a series of peaceful anti-coup rallies in the capital and elsewhere.
The case sparked international calls for their release and criticism of the military junta's use of military courts to try civilians and its strict controls on freedom of speech and assembly. University professors and students joined dozens of protesters to show support for the students outside the court, across from the Grand Palace in Bangkok's historic quarter.
Amid mounting pressure, the court denied a request from police to extend the students' pre-trial detention for 12 more days, said defense lawyer Krisadang Nutcharut. They were expected to be released Wednesday morning.
Under Thai law, people can be held a maximum of 48 days without formal charges.
"The court agreed with our request to release them on grounds that they have no intention to run away," Kritsadang told reporters outside the courthouse. Journalists were not allowed to attend the hearing. "They can now go back to their studies."
In a June 25 rally, the students wrapped Bangkok's Democracy Monument in black cloth and called for the junta to "get out." In May, they conducted peaceful rallies in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen to mark the coup's first anniversary.
They face charges of sedition and violating the junta's ban on political gatherings of more than five people, which carry penalties of up to seven and a half years in prison. No date has been set for their trial.
Since overthrowing an elected government in May 2014, the nation's military rulers have jailed opponents who dared to speak out against them. They have censored the media, forbidden open political debate and ordered that security-related offenses be handled by military courts.
Commenting on the court's decision, a government spokesman warned the students to behave.
"Even though they will be released, it doesn't mean the case is concluded," said deputy government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd. He urged the students not to "create chaos in society" or to "hold activities like in the past."
The military has spoken of holding national elections but has not said exactly when they could take place, and its latest constitutional draft would curb the powers of elected political leaders.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the students' arrests "demonstrate the military junta's unwillingness to ease its oppressive rule."
The U.N. human rights office has called for the students' release and urged the government to review its use of laws that limit freedom of expression and assembly.
The European Union has called the arrests "a disturbing development" and said civilians should not be tried in military courts.
The students' case is the latest dilemma for the government, which has come under fire for the country's long-ignored human trafficking violations and illegal activity in the lucrative fishing industry that could lead to an EU ban on imports from Thailand.
Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.