Thailand has again outraged human rights groups with its lese majeste laws by sentencing political activist and magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk to 11 years in prison after a court found he had insulted the royal family in the Voice of Taksin, a defunct magazine that threw its support behind ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Somyot was arrested in April 2011 in connection with two articles in the Voice of Taksin, which prosecutors said had criticized the role of a fictional character meant to be the king. Somyot pleaded not guilty and argued he was the editor and not the writer of the articles.
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Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Thai courts have adopted the role of chief protector of the monarchy at the expense of freedom of expression.
“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,” he said.
Amnesty International said Somyot was found guilty for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and should be released immediately, while the European Union added that the ruling had undermined Thailand’s image as a free and democratic society.
The United Nations described the sentence as extremely harsh and a setback for human rights in Thailand, suggesting its lese majeste laws should be amended.
In this region, this type of criticism has normally been reserved for Cambodia where the courts have imposed severe sentences on activists and political opponents of the government for innocuous crimes, or Vietnam where bloggers critical of the government have also been jailed.
Nevertheless, this is hardly new. In 2005, 33 charges for lese majeste were bought before Thai courts, climbing to 126 in 2007 and 164 in 2009. This figure then rose to a whopping 478 cases in 2010 under then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Under the law it is a crime to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen or heir to the throne. Insulting the king is considered an act that wounds those who worship the monarch and his family.
However, critics argue the laws have been used and abused by both sides of Thailand’s viscous political divide, often defined by conflicts between the Red and Yellow shirts, with ambitious politicians using the law to push their own agendas.
Jakrapob Penkair, author of the latest articles to offend and a former government spokesman has fled to Cambodia where Prime Minister Hun Sen just happens to be a longstanding friend of Thaksin.