An activist was sentenced Thursday to 15 years in prison for insulting Thailand’s king in the third case in a month involving the strict law against defaming the monarchy that is increasingly being criticized as an infringement on free speech.
Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, nicknamed “Da Torpedo” for her aggressive speaking style, has been detained since July 2008 after speaking at a rally using impolite language that was recorded by police.
The Criminal Court found Daranee guilty of violating the lese majeste law, which provides for a jail term of three to 15 years for anyone who “defames, insults, or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent, or the regent.”
Daranee, a journalist, became an activist after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed in a 2006 coup and delivered fiery speeches at rallies organized by Thaksin’s “Red Shirt” supporters.
Daranee said she would not appeal her sentence. “I have no will to keep fighting and I will neither lodge an appeal nor seek a royal pardon,” she said.
Criticism of the lese majeste law increased last month after a 61-year-old grandfather received a 20-year sentence for four text messages sent from his phone to a government official.
The sentence given Amphon Tangnoppakul was believed to be the heaviest ever received in a lese majeste case because of additional penalties issued under a related law, the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. He denied sending the messages and said he didn’t even know how to use the SMS function on his telephone.
The plight of “Uncle SMS,” as he became known, has drawn international attention as has the sentencing earlier this month of Thai-born American Joe Gordon to 2 1/2 years in prison for translating excerpts of a banned biography of the king and placing them online. Gordon was in Colorado when the alleged offense occurred and was arrested when he later visited Thailand.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Darragh Paradiso, said the United States has utmost respect for the Thai monarchy, but is “troubled by recent prosecutions and court decisions that are not consistent with international standards of freedom of expression.”
The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued a statement of concern, saying “Such harsh criminal sanctions are neither necessary nor proportionate and violate the country’s international human rights obligations.”
Lese majeste prosecutions used to be rare in Thailand, and were mostly used for partisan political purposes as a means of smearing opponents.
But the number of high-profile cases has risen in recent years as nervousness about the eventual succession to 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has increased, with the previously taboo subject of the monarchy’s proper role starting to become a matter of public discussion.
However, loyalty to the monarch is still a touchstone of Thai politics, and frank discussion is difficult.
A movement led by intellectuals and academics began a public campaign this year for reform of the lese majeste law.
This was Daranee’s second trial. She received an 18-year term in her first trial, but was granted a new trial after courts ruled that her petition against having the first trial closed was not heard in a timely way.