(New York) – Thai authorities should quash the conviction and release a prominent magazine editor imprisoned under Thailand’s draconian law on insulting the monarchy, Human Rights Watch said today.
“Somyot’s guilty verdict shows yet again how Thailand’s ‘insulting the monarchy’ law has been misused to punish dissenters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of protecting basic rights, the courts are being complicit in clamping down on free speech.”
Somyot, 55, is currently Thailand’s longest-serving lese majeste prisoner. He was first arrested in 2010 during the period when street protests by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) or “Red Shirts” were taking place 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 that allegation. On May 24, the CRES arrested Somyot and 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 Thaksin to Red Power. The Abhisit government forced the shutdown of Red Power in September 2010.
Somyot was arrested again on April 30, 2011, five days after launching a grass-roots campaign to collect 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for amending article 112. Police 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 authorities charged Somyot in connection with two articles that were written by Jit Pollachan, a pseudonym of Jakrapob Penkair, the now exiled former spokesman of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Jakrapob was never charged with any crime for these two articles.
Criticizing the monarchy is a serious criminal offense in Thailand. People charged with lese majeste are routinely denied bail and jailed in pre-trial detention for many months. Somyot has been denied bail 16 times.
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 as threats to national security.
In August 2012, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Somyot's detention was arbitrary and requested the Thai government to release him and provide him an enforceable right to compensation in accordance with international law.
The UN 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.” The UN Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand has ratified, has stated in a General Comment 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.”
Neither the Thai monarch nor any member of the royal family has ever personally filed lese majeste charges. During his birthday speech in 2005, the King Bhumibol Adulyadej 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.”
However, the police, public prosecutors, courts, and other state authorities appear reluctant to reject allegations of lese majeste out of concern they might be accused of disloyalty to the monarchy. Successive Thai governments have made lese majeste prosecutions a top priority for their administration.
“The heavy-handed enforcement of lese majeste laws severely impacts freedom of expression in Thailand,” Adams said. “The government should urgently initiate a serious discussion on how to amend the law and revise the enforcement of its provisions so that Thailand can comply with its international human rights obligations.”