(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately release a prominent pro-democracy activist charged for a Facebook posting under laws intended to protect Thailand’s monarchy, Human Rights Watch said today. Jatupat (Pai) Boonphatthararaksa faces up to 15 years in prison for lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) charges initiated by the military.
“The charges against Jatupat show the Thai junta’s misuse of lese majeste laws to persecute dissenters against military rule,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Thailand’s military rulers have aggressively clamped down on any speech they find objectionable, including what they arbitrarily deem is critical of the monarchy.”
Jatupat was charged with lese majeste offenses under article 112 of the Criminal Code and violation of the Computer Crimes Act for posting on his Facebook page a profile of Thailand’s new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, published by the BBC Thai language service on December 2, 2016. Thai authorities deemed the article to be critical of the monarchy and blocked it from viewing in Thailand.
Jatupat, who is a 25-year-old student activist affiliated with the Dao Din Movement and the New Democracy Movement (NDM), was arrested on December 3. Although more than 2,800 people had “shared” the article on the internet at the time of Jatupat’s arrest, he was the only person Thai authorities charged with lese majeste.
The case against Jatupat was triggered by a complaint filed by an army officer from the 23rd Military Circle in Khon Kaen Province. That military unit has arrested him many times for holding public protests and other peaceful activities to oppose the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta and demand a transition to democratic civilian rule.
After his arrest, Jatupat was initially released on 400,000 Baht (US$11,000) bail on December 4. On December 22, the Khon Kaen provincial court revoked his bail, ruling that he had made other Facebook comments satirizing the authorities, and failed to delete his original post of the king’s profile. The court has since repeatedly denied Jatupat’s bail requests.
On January 20, the court held a closed-door hearing – without Jatupat’s lawyer’s participation – and extended his pre-trial detention 12 days, the fifth such extension. He is currently detained at the Khon Kaen provincial correctional institution and subjected to abusive cavity searches every time he returns from a court hearing. Because of his detention, Jatupat has been prevented from taking exams that he needs to graduate from Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law.
The Thai junta has repeatedly prosecuted critics of the monarchy in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Since the May 2014 coup, authorities have charged at least 68 persons with lese majeste, mostly for posting or sharing comments online. Some have been convicted and sentenced to decades of imprisonment.
The right to freedom of expression is protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is party. General Comment 34 of the Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors compliance with the covenant, has stated that laws such as those for lese majeste “should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned” and that governments “should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.” In addition, the routine refusal to provide bail in lese majeste cases violates the covenant’s provision that it “shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.”
Thai laws regarding lese majeste should bar private actions, including by the military, which have been routinely used for political purposes, Human Rights Watch said. Past practice has shown that the authorities have difficulty rejecting allegations filed by private individuals for fear of themselves being accused of disloyalty to the monarchy.
“The glaring injustice of Jatupat’s lese majeste case has been made even worse by his prolonged pre-trial detention,” Adams said. “Instead of punishing him before trial, the charges against him should be dropped immediately.”