(New York) – The conviction of a prominent Thai magazine editor and his harsh 11-year sentence for “insulting the monarchy” will further chill freedom of expression in Thailand. On January 23, 2013, the Bangkok Criminal Court found Somyot Prueksakasemsuk guilty of lese majeste offenses, for publishing two articles in his Voice of Taksin magazine that prosecutors argued made negative references to the monarchy.
“The courts seem to have adopted the role of chief protector of the monarchy at the expense of free expression rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The court’s ruling appears to be more about Somyot’s strong support for amending the lese majeste law than about any harm incurred by the monarchy.”
Somyot was first arrested during the street protests by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) “Red Shirts” against the government of then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. On April 26, 2010, the government’s Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) put Somyot and his magazine on a chart containing names of individuals and groups whom it accused of being “anti-monarchy.” The CRES never offered any credible evidence to substantiate this allegation. On May 24, 2010, Somyot was arrested by the CRES, which detained him without charge for 19 days in an army camp under state of emergency rules then in effect. He was released on June 13, 2010. Somyot then changed the name of his magazine from Voice of Taksin to Red Power. The Abhisit government forced the shutdown of Red Power in September 2010.
Police arrested Somyot again on April 30, 2011, and charged him under article 112 of Thailand’s penal code, which states that “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” The two articles for which Somyot was charged were written by Jit Pollachan, the pseudonym of Jakrapob Penkair, the exiled former spokesman of Thaksin. Jakrapob, now living in Cambodia, has never been charged with any crime for what he wrote.
Somyot was arrested five days after launching a campaign to collect 10,000 signatures calling for the amendment of article 112. On May 29, 2012, the Camping Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 submitted a proposed amendment along with 30,383 signatures to the parliament. However, in November 2012, Parliament Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranond dismissed the proposed amendment, saying that the constitution prohibits any law reform related to the institution of the monarchy.
While Thailand’s Printing Act protects editors from being held accountable for the content of others, the Constitutional Court ruled on October 10, 2012, that the restrictions on freedom of expression and the criminal penalties for lese majeste offenses were constitutional, because breaches of lese majeste are considered threats to national security.
The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression stated in October 2011 that Thailand’s lese majeste laws were “vague and overly broad, and the harsh criminal sanctions are neither necessary nor proportionate to protect the monarchy or national security.”
Human Rights Watch said that Thai authorities used Somyot’s pretrial detention as a means to punish him for his views. Somyot was denied bail eight times during the course of his 20-month pretrial detention. He was compelled to appear in shackles in hearings in four different provinces for the same alleged offense, even though all the witnesses resided in Bangkok. Somyot told Human Rights Watch that he had been transported in shackles to 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 without access to toilet facilities, aggravating his medical conditions, which include hypertension and gout.
Pretrial detention that appears intended to unlawfully punish suspects in lese majeste cases is frequent in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in August 2012 found the pretrial detention of Somyot in contravention of international human rights law, and called for his release pending trial.
From 1990 to 2005, the Thai court system received only about four or five lese majesty cases per year. In the period from January 2006 to May 2011, however, there was a surge when more than 400 cases were brought to trial. While the prosecutions for lese majeste have declined since Yingluck Shinawatra took office in 2011, Thai authorities continue to use draconian statutes in the Penal Code and the Computer Crime Act to restrict freedom of expression, including on the internet. Thousands of websites have been blocked as “offensive to the monarchy.”
Neither the king nor any member of the royal family has ever personally filed any lese majeste charges. During his birthday speech in 2005, King Bhumibol Adulyadej said: “Actually, I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know.” He later added, “But the King can do wrong.”
The police, public prosecutors, courts, and local authorities are often afraid to reject allegations of lese majeste out of concern they might be accused of disloyalty to the monarchy. Human Rights Watch has long urged the Thai government to amend the laws so that private parties cannot bring complaints of lese majeste since no private harm is incurred. Private persons and groups often misuse lese majeste laws for political purposes.
“The political nature of the prosecution was demonstrated by the way Somyot was mistreated in pretrial detention for 20 months,” Adams said. “His guilty verdict and sentence should be viewed as a sign that Thailand’s deep political schisms are far from healed.”