(New York) – Thai courts are refusing bail for people charged with the crime of lese majeste for apparently political reasons, Human Rights Watch said today. Thai law criminalizes the expression of peaceful opinions deemed offensive to the institution of the monarchy.
In all 12 cases of lese majeste that the public prosecutor has filed against supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, known as the Red Shirts, since 2009, bail has been denied, Human Rights Watch said. By contrast, the leader of the pro-monarchy People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Sondhi Limthongkul, was charged with lese majeste on July 5, 2010, and granted bail the same day.
“Bail appears to be systematically denied to members of the Red Shirts while they await trial for lese majeste,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Denial of bail seems to be for punishment rather than for justified reasons.”
A verdict is expected on February 28, 2012, in the case of Surachai Danwattananusorn, a prominent political activist and leader of the Red Siam, a faction in the Red Shirt movement that has often expressed anti-monarchy opinions. He was arrested and charged with lese majeste in February 2011, and his bail application was denied five times. He said his health problems, including a heart condition, hypertension, and diabetes, and the repeated rejections of his bail applications are the main reasons he has decided to seek a quick end of his trial by pleading guilty.
Joe Gordon, an American citizen known to be a supporter of the Red Shirts, pleaded guilty to lese majeste charges and was sentenced in December 2011 to five years in prison. He told Human Rights Watch that he decided to plead guilty, hoping to have his penalty lessened, after being denied bail eight times since his arrest in May 2011. The sentence was later reduced by half and he is now preparing to ask for a royal pardon.
Somyot Preuksakasemsuk, a well-known labor activist and editor, was arrested on lese majeste charges on April 30, 2011 in connection with articles published in the now banned Voice of Taksin magazine, which supports the Red Shirts. He has been denied bail seven times since his arrest, most recently on February 20.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Thai authorities are using Somyot’s pre-trial detention to mistreat him. Somyot told Human Rights Watch that he had been transferred to attend witness hearings in Sa Kaeo, Petchabun, Nakorn Sawan, and Songkhla provinces, during which he had to stand up throughout the journeys in an overcrowded truck, with his ankles shackled and without access to toilet facilities, leading to the aggravation of his medical conditions, which include hypertension and gout.
Holding the witness hearings in the provinces may have been unnecessary because, as Human Rights Watch learned, a number of prosecution witnesses in Somyot’s case actually live and work in Bangkok despite having registered residences in the provinces. On September 12, the criminal court in Bangkok rejected Somyot’s request to hold hearings in Bangkok. The four provincial courts rejected a similar request. Holding numerous, and perhaps unnecessary, pre-trial hearings outside Bangkok – at least 10 more such hearings are scheduled before May – will mean that Somyot will have been in pre-trial detention for at least a year before his case goes to trial.
On February 11, Panitan Preuksakasemsuk, Somyot’s son, started a hunger strike in front of the criminal court to demand his father’s release on bail while he stands trial. The campaign has since been backed by the families of other lese majeste prisoners.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand has ratified, states that, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial.” Those denied bail need to be tried as expeditiously as possible.
“The glaring injustices of the lese majeste cases are being made even worse by the denial of bail and long periods of pre-trial detention,” Adams said.
In response to recommendations by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand, the Justice Ministry’s Rights and Liberties Protection Department has begun using its budget from the “Justice Fund” to guarantee bail applications of those being held on lese majeste charges, as well as supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship facing various charges in connection with political protests in 2010. The commission’s chairperson, Kanit Na Nakhon, has also publicly called for judges to treat lese majeste offenders more leniently. In February, though, the courts have rejected the first three bail requests under this effort.
The House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Law, Justice, and Human Rights began a hearing on February 22 to investigate the refusal of bail in lese majeste cases in which the defendants are believed to have connection with the Red Shirt movement.
“Freedom of expression is seriously under threat in Thailand because of harsh treatment and severe penalties being meted out for peaceful expression,” Adams said.
Since the September 2006 coup, Thai authorities have taken increasingly repressive actions against those perceived to have made criticisms of the institution of monarchy. In response to mass protests led by the Red Shirts in 2009 and 2010, the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva frequently used article 112 of the Penal Code and article 14 of the Computer-Related Crimes Act to intimidate, arrest, and prosecute activists, journalists, and academics, both Thai and foreign. Despite its promises to restore respect for human rights in Thailand, the new government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which took office in August 2011, has shown little interest in ending lese majeste crackdowns. On September 1, 2011, a computer programmer, Surapak Phuchaisaeng, was arrested in Bangkok for allegedly posting pictures, audio clips, and messages deemed insulting to the royal family on the social networking site Facebook.
In his 2005 birthday speech, Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadejhimself stated that he was not above criticism. “Actually, I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the King cannot be criticized, it means that the King is not human,” he said. “If the King can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him because the King is not being treated as a human being. But the King can do wrong.”