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Activists who were detained after posting critical comments on Facebook of the ruling military junta, leave the military court in Bangkok, Thailand May 10, 2016. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand released eight activists on bail on Tuesday who had been detained for posting Facebook comments critical of the ruling junta and a military-backed draft constitution.

The military seized power in May 2014, throwing out an old constitution and clamping down on dissent. It has promised an election by mid-2017.

But a draft constitution drawn up under military supervision has drawn disapproval from both sides of the political divide, and the junta has responded by banning criticism of the charter in the run-up to an August referendum on it.

The activists, detained in April, have been charged with sedition and violating Thailand's computer crimes law for their posts on social media website Facebook that criticised the draft constitution and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Two of them also face charges of infringing Thailand's royal defamation law, known as Article 112.

The court released them on bail of 200,000 baht ($5,675) each, Winyat Chatmontree, a lawyer for the group, told Reuters.

Supporters greeted them with flowers outside the Bangkok prison where they had been held.

"I have to thank the court that granted us bail and gave us freedom," said activist Noppakao Kongsuwan. "I also want to thank the brothers and sisters. Some sent us moral support on social media and others came to visit us in prison," he said.

It is not yet known when their trial will begin.

Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code says anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent" will be punished with prison terms of up to 15 years for each offence.

"I have already told you this government will not tolerate royal defamation," Prayuth told reporters at government house on Tuesday.

Critics have said the military uses royal defamation laws as a political tool to silence its enemies.

JITTERS

On Sunday the mother of a vocal, anti-junta activist was released after being charged with defaming the monarchy two days earlier.

Demonstrations have been rare since the generals overthrew the government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, but a small wave of opposition to the junta and the military-backed charter has arisen in recent weeks.

The junta has appeared increasingly jittery ahead of the Aug. 7 referendum on the constitution, which the country's two biggest political parties have both criticised as undemocratic.

The military denies seeking indefinite power and says the proposed constitution would heal divisions and usher in stable, corruption-free politics.

Opponents say it would enshrine military power and fail to end the political rivalry that has divided the country for more than a decade.

At the heart of Thailand's decade of tumultuous politics has been rivalry between populist political forces that have won huge support in the countryside and the Bangkok-based military-dominated establishment.

(Reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Juarawee Kittisilpa; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Gareth Jones)

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