Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Thailand defended laws protecting the country’s royal family from insults amid growing international criticism of “harsh” prison sentences in recent weeks for a U.S. citizen and 61-year-old retired truck driver.
The lese-majeste law “is not aimed at curbing people’s rights to freedom of opinion and expression nor the legitimate exercise of academic freedom, including debates about the monarchy as an institution,” Thani Thongphakdi, foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement late yesterday.
The law mandates jail sentences as long as 15 years for defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. The United Nations human rights office last week said the law had a “chilling effect” on free speech and called for it to be amended.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s four-month-old government has sought to block websites deemed insulting to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who took the throne in 1946 and turned 84 earlier this month. About 100 activists denounced the lese- majeste law on Dec. 10 in a protest in Bangkok, online news outlet Prachatai reported.
A Thai court today reduced Daranee Charncherngsilapakul’s prison sentence for insulting the country’s royal family to 15 years from 18 years. Daranee had appealed a 2009 verdict in which a court found her guilty of three charges stemming from her claim in a public speech that King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit backed a 2006 coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother.
“I have no plan to appeal the court’s verdict and I’m ready to serve time in jail,” Daranee, who has been locked up since 2008, told reporters at the court after the hearing.
Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung said yesterday the government would spend 400 million baht ($12.7 million) to purchase legal intercept technology that can block websites that insult the monarchy.
Police asked a Thai court yesterday to block 116 websites and five arrest warrants of webmasters were approved, said Worapong Chewprecha, a member of a committee set up by Chalerm to monitor for lese-majeste content.
“Those who abuse their rights by spreading hate speech or distorted information to incite violence and hatred among Thais as well as towards the monarchical institution in contravention to the law –- whether through the Internet, online social networks, communication device or otherwise –- have to be held accountable,” Thani said in the statement.
U.S. citizen Joe Gordon, who was born in Thailand and also goes by the name Lerpong Wichaikhammat, received a 2 1/2-year prison sentence on Dec. 8 for translating an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol and posting it on a website. Two weeks earlier, Ampol Tangnoppakul, 61, received a 20-year jail term for sending four text messages that defamed Queen Sirikit, one of the longest jail terms given under the lese-majeste law.
The European Union delegation in Thailand said Nov. 28 it was “deeply concerned” about Ampol’s sentence and urged Thai authorities to uphold freedom of expression. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Dec. 8 the U.S. is “troubled by the outcome” of Gordon’s case.
“We are concerned about the ongoing trials and harsh sentencing of people convicted of lese majeste in Thailand and the chilling effect that this is having on freedom of expression in the country,” Ravina Shamdasani, Geneva-based spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a Dec. 9 statement. “Such harsh criminal sanctions are neither necessary nor proportionate and violate the country’s international human rights obligations.”
Thani said both Gordon and Ampol were “accorded due process as provided by the Thai Criminal Procedures Code including the right to fair trial, due opportunity to contest the charges and assistance from their lawyer. They are also entitled to the right to appeal.”
Since 2005, a year before the coup that ousted Thaksin, the number of lese-majeste cases before the lower courts has increased 15 times to 478 last year, according to statistics compiled by David Streckfuss, an academic based in northeast Thailand. The military cited Thaksin’s disrespect of King Bhumibol as one of the reasons it overthrew him.
Yingluck took power on Aug. 9 after her Pheu Thai party won a majority in July elections. Several party members who led anti-government protests last year while serving as the opposition, including Jatuporn Prompan, have faced accusations of insulting the royal family.
Thailand’s constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.” King Bhumibol’s picture is hung in the majority of Thai homes and a royal anthem praising him is played before movies in theaters across the country.
--With assistance from Anuchit Nguyen in Bangkok. Editors: Tony Jordan, Paul Tighe
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