BANGKOK – A military court in Thailand has sentenced a 34-year-old man to 35 years in prison for violating the country’s draconian lèse-majesté law, which criminalizes all perceived insult toward the nation’s monarchy.
Agence France-Presse reports The Bangkok military court sentenced 34-year-old former insurance salesman Vichai Thepwong to 70 years’ imprisonment on 10 counts of lese-majeste, but halved the sentence because he had pleaded guilty. His sentence is believed to be the harshest handed down to date of more than 100 cases of alleged royal defamation since the country’s military seized power in a 2014 coup.
A Thai legal watchdog group, iLaw, told AFP that Wichai was originally facing a 70 year sentence — seven years for each count — but his sentence was halved because he confessed to the crimes after spending a year in jail waiting for his trial.
Thailand’s lèse-majesté law is among the strictest of its kind; the legislation is ostensibly meant to protect the royal family from being defamed, but in practice is often used to suppress dissent. Violators can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, and complaints can be made by anyone, against anyone, at any time.
Since the 2014 coup, the junta, led by retired army chief General Prayuth Chan Ocha, has tightened restrictions on the media, on phone and Internet use. Last month the regime warned Facebook that it would be shut down in the country if it did not censor content deemed inappropriate by the Thai government. Facebook did not comply and was not shut down.
Human rights groups and legal professionals say they have seen an uptick in enforcement of defamation laws since the coup. Thailand’s array of anti-defamation clauses have also had a chilling effect on social media users and activists.
Thailand’s lese-majeste law is the world’s harshest and routinely draws criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups.
“The lese-majeste provision of the Thai Criminal Code is incompatible with international human rights law,” United Nations Special Rapporteur David Kaye said in a February statement, declaring that the law has “no place in a democratic country”.
The military government says the law is necessary to safeguard the monarchy and national security.
In recent months, several Thai officials have threatened Facebook with legal sanctions if it failed to remove defamatory posts in a timely matter.
Facebook says it complies after Thai courts order it to block illegal material.
On Friday, another Thai man was sentenced to five years in jail for uploading an audio-file regarded as insulting to the monarchy. His sentence was also halved after he pleaded guilty.
Source: Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press and Reuters