BANGKOK – A Thai military court on Tuesday sentenced ten people to five-year jail terms for distributing online content insulting the country’s monarchy.
The group, including four women, were charged between January and March under Section 112 of the Criminal Code, under which anyone convicted of insulting the King, Queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
Those who were sentenced on lese majeste charges were part of what police said was a network headed by 64-year-old Hassadin Uraipraiwan, known online as “DJ Banpodj.” Hassadin created video clips and uploaded them to sites such as YouTube, from which members of a Facebook group reposted them. Defense lawyer Yingcheep Atchanont said his clients told him they had not known each other before making contact through the social media site.
Police described the network as a serious threat to the monarchy and the nation’s stability, claiming the group incited “chaos and hatred in society.”
Critics of the military government that took power in a coup last year claim lese majeste law is used to intimidate political opposition.
Hassadin, who began uploading the clips in 2010, was a supporter of Thailand’s Red Shirt movement, which backs former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup.
Yingcheep, an attorney from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, said the defendants had faced a maximum of 15 years in jail but received reduced sentences for confessing and pleading guilty.
He said that of 400 clips that Hassadin produced that criticized both politicians and the monarchy.
Yingcheep said the case illustrated how people who share something on Facebook receive as harsh a penalty as whoever originally produces and post the illegal material. He said he believed people who just shared the material should receive a lesser penalty.
Of the 14 people originally arrested in the case between January and February, two decided to fight the case and two others faced lesser charges.
Lese majeste cases have risen in Thailand since the military government took power in May 2014, said Yingcheep.
“Maybe the military government is trying to show that their duty is to protect the monarchy by arresting more and more people,” he said. The junta soon after taking power declared that protection of the monarchy was a top priority.
Royal defamation prosecutions have surged since former army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha seized power in May 2014 and critics say that the law has been politicized to target opponents of the coup, according to the Bangkok Post.
According to iLaw, a local rights group that monitors such cases, there were just two ongoing prosecutions for royal defamation before the takeover. Now that number is at least 56.
In June, a Thai man was sentenced to more than three years in jail for lese majeste despite having a history of mental illness.
Other recent cases include a 58-year-old man sentenced to 25 years in prison for the content of five Facebook posts and a bookseller jailed for an alleged offence back in 2006.