UN Body Blasts Thailand on Lèse-Majesté

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has come out swinging against Thailand’s tough lèse-majesté laws, saying in a Geneva-based release that it “is appalled by the shockingly disproportionate prison terms handed down over the past few months in lèse-majesté cases in Thailand.”

The commission’s anger was spurred by the latest of several cases, an August 7 sentence by the Bangkok Military Court of travel agent Phongsak Sribunpeng to 30 years in prison for violating Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which governs lèse-majesté, or insulting the king or the royal family.

Since former Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha overthrew Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014 amid orchestrated street protests in Bangkok, the pace of lèse-majesté charges has picked up markedly.

Despite calls from the United States and the European Union, among others, to moderate the arrests, Prayuth has repeatedly said that outsiders cannot understand Thailand and that the laws are good for the country. The real reason for the crackdown is said to be the internecine maneuvering for power that is already underway in anticipation of the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87.

(Read related story: Thailand’s Coup and the Threat of the King’s Death)

Risky Facebook

According to the UN office, Phongsak was convicted for posting six comments that were critical of members of the royal family on Facebook. The sentence was initially 60 years – 10 years per post – but this was reduced due to his guilty plea.

On the same day, the UN office said, the Chiang Mai Military Court handed a 28-year prison term to Sasiwimol Patomwongfa-ngarm, a hotel worker, for posting seven comments on Facebook critical of the monarchy. The sentence was reduced from 56 years because of her guilty plea.

Another particularly harsh sentence was handed down in March, when the Bangkok Military Court convicted Thiansutham Suttijitseranee to 25 years in prison for posting five comments criticizing the monarchy on Facebook.

Heavy justice

“These are the heaviest sentences we have recorded since 2006, when we began documenting cases of individuals prosecuted for lèse-majesté offences for exercising the right to freedom of expression,” the commission said. “And there has been a sharp increase in the number of such cases. Since the May 2014 military coup, at least 40 individuals have either been convicted or remain in pre-trial detention for lèse-majesté offences, both under Section 112 and under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. In early May 2014, prior to the coup, there were five people in prison for lèse-majesté related convictions.”

Also among those convicted in recent months are people with psychosocial disabilities, according to the press release. “On August 6, the Chiang Rai military court sentenced Samak Pantae to five years in prison for destroying a portrait of the King while he was intoxicated. Pantae has been diagnosed with psychosis by Chiang Rai Hospital and has been taking medication to battle visual and auditory hallucinations.”

On June 15, the Bangkok Criminal Court sentenced Tanet Nontakoat to three years and four months in prison for sending URLs containing lèse-majesté content to a website administrator. Tanet is reportedly suffering from schizophrenia, the Human Rights Commission said.

“We are also alarmed at the spike in harsh prison terms delivered in such cases by the military courts, which themselves fail to meet international human rights standards, including the right to a fair trial. Observers have been barred from entry and in many instances there is no option for appeal.

“International law requires that trials of civilians by military courts should be exceptional, and military trials must afford all due process guarantees provided for under international human rights law. We call for the immediate release of all those who have been jailed or held in prolonged pre-trial detention for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression. We also urge the military government to amend the vague and broad lèse-majesté law to bring it in line with international human rights standards. Until the law is amended, such laws should not be used arbitrarily to curb debate on critical issues of public interest, even when it involves criticism of heads of state or government.”