Thai magazine editor and pro-democracy activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was released from a Bangkok prison today after serving a seven-year sentence on lese majeste – “insulting the monarchy” – and defamation charges.
Somyot’s long imprisonment exemplifies Thai authorities’ misuse of the draconian lese majeste law to punish those deemed to be critics of the government.
Somyot, now 56, was arrested on April 30, 2011, in connection with two satirical articles in his Voice of Taksin magazine, which Thai authorities considered to defame the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, even though the Printing Act protects editors from being held accountable for the content of others.
Under article 112 of Thailand’s Penal Code, “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, Heir-Apparent or Regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”
Thai authorities disregarded concerns raised by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2012 that Somyot’s detention was arbitrary and he should be released. Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled in October 2012 against Somyot’s petition arguing that the restrictions on freedom of expression and the criminal penalties for lese majeste offenses were unconstitutional, holding that acts of lese majeste threatened to national security.
Since the May 2014 military coup, Thailand’s junta has tightened the chokehold on freedom of expression in the name of protecting the monarchy. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order, chaired by Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has made lese majeste prosecutions a top priority. Since taking power, the junta has arrested at least 105 people on lese majeste charges, mostly for posting or sharing critical commentary online about the monarchy. Some of those charged for critical Facebook posts have been sentenced to decades in prison.
Thai authorities and the courts have interpreted the law increasingly broadly – and absurdly. A factory worker was arrested in December 2015 for allegedly making satirical online comments about a royal dog, while a leading scholar was accused of committing lese majeste for his lecture on a 16th-century battle.
The Thai government will continue to face global condemnation until there are serious initiatives to amend the lese majeste law and reform its enforcement so that people in Thailand can truly enjoy freedom of expression.