Thailand's Da Torpedo Trial Torpedoed

A Thai appeals court Wednesday overturned the conviction of Daranee Champoengsilpakul, a leader of the Red Shirt protesters during tumultuous anti-government demonstrations, for insulting the country's royalty.

The court overturned the trial on the ground that it was never determined whether it was legal to be closed to the public against her wishes. She remains in jail, however, pending an application for release on bail, and could face a new trial at a time when the very concept of lese majeste, as insulting the royalty is called, seems to be becoming increasingly a mockery.

While protesters are being hauled into court, videotapes are making the rounds of Thai society showing Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn throwing a birthday party for his dog, Foo Foo, in which his wife appeared topless and wearing a thong. In addition, three top government leaders were quoted in WikiLeaks cables questioning the prince's ability to assume the throne. They have not been charged. In another cable, the prince is mentioned as having made Foo Foo a chief air marshal.

Daranee, who goes under the nom de guerre Da Torpedo, was given 18 years in prison in August 2009 for speeches she made at rallies as she led a group of Red Shirts protesting against actions by pro-royalists, known as the Yellow Shirts. She was charged with "gathering in a group of 10 or more people to instigate public unrest, detaining other people, damaging private property, trespass, and insulting others, in a 2007 incident when she led a group of about 50-70 red shirts to protest at the ASTV office on Bangkok's Phra Athit Road. In particular she made a target of Sondhi Limtongkul, a Thai publisher who emerged as a spokesman for the royalist movement.

Although she had requested that the trial court forward her petition for an open trial to the Constitutional Court, Judge Prommat Toosang refused her request, citing reasons of national security. The Appeals Court voided the trial on grounds that Prommat had refused to forward the petition.

Although the law on lèse majesté, as insulting the king is known, have long been on the books, the government began to use it widely to attempt to quell protest following the 2006 coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has since been convicted of corruption and fled the country. Two subsequent elections, which returned his followers to power, were voided by the courts, spurring months of tumult.

Thailand's iLaw Foundation found in December that 185 people had been charged so far under the Computer Crimes Act in a four year period. It is estimated that that 98 percent of those charged with lèse majesté have been convicted, with sentences ranging up to 18 years. One critic said he believes 172 such arrests took place in 2009 alone. Thailand is also said to have blocked 425,296 web pages during the period of emergency rule from April 7 to Dec. 22, 2010. The mandates a jail term of three to 15 years for "whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the regent."

One youth was charged after he declined to stand in a movie theatre when the king's anthem was being played. Another, an Australian novelist, was charged for referring to the crown prince in a derogatory manner in a novel that sold almost no copies.

The decision to void Daranee's conviction came simultaneously with government efforts to jail two other anti-government figures. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of the popular Prachatai website, has been on trial for three days in Bangkok's Criminal Court, charged with 10 violations of the country's Computer Crimes Act, each of which has a maximum of five years in prison. The charges persist despite the fact that Chiranuch made none of the comments herself and apparently attempted to cooperate with Thailand's censors, according to testimony by the country's chief censor last Friday and Monday.

On three separate occasions, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has expressed concern about the case, saying he thought the charges would be dismissed. As with his statements that cross-border tension with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Temple could be solved amicably, the lack of government attention to his remarks makes it questionable if he is in charge. If convicted, Chiranuch she could thus be sentenced to 50 years, although in fact the maximum she could serve is 20 years.

The other protester is Tantawut Taweewarodomkul, who has been has been held without bail since April 2010. NorPhorChor is an acronym for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, commonly known as the Redshirts.