CHIANG MAI – A Thai businessman has been sentenced to five years in prison for royal defamation, a court official said Wednesday, one of a string of recent cases under the controversial law.
The Court of First Instance dismissed the case against him in 2013 due to lack of substantial evidence, according to iLaw, an Internet-based human rights advocacy group.
“He is seeking to appeal with the Supreme Court,” the court official said.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, is revered by many Thais and protected by tough royal defamation laws.
Under the lese majeste rules, anyone convicted of defaming the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
Anybody can make a complaint and police are duty-bound to investigate.
Critics say the legislation has been politicized, noting that many of those charged are linked to the “Red Shirts” protest movement, which is broadly supportive of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin clashed with the royalist establishment before his overthrow in a coup in 2006.
His younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted in a controversial court decision in May this year.
Since the army seized power later the same month, 13 people have been charged with royal defamation, including seven with involvement in politics, according to local rights group iLaw.
They include prominent anti-coup activist Sombat Boonngamanong, who led an anti-junta campaign using the three-finger salute from the “Hunger Games” films.
The royal defamation charge against Sombat relates to a photo that he allegedly posted online.
The junta has clamped down on any opposition to its takeover, with a crackdown on perceived slurs against the royals at the heart of its stepped-up online surveillance operations.
In a report released on Monday, iLaw said lese majeste was “an excuse which brings conflict and political violence and was the main reason for almost every coup”.
Before the coup, calls for reform of the lese majeste laws had grown following several high-profile convictions.
But academics urging greater debate are among hundreds of people who were summoned by the junta and temporarily detained in secret locations.
Niran Pitakwatchara, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, said the increase in lese majeste charges and lawsuits has been an issue of concern for several years. He said the application of Section 112 of the constitution on lese majeste proved problematic as it was, in many cases, politically motivated, which only complicates the political conflicts.
“The more arrests and charges are made, the more the revered institution will be politicized,” he said.
Surapol Eiamsuwan, 52, father of engineering student Akaradet, said he would like to ask the junta to be more careful that it does not give out the wrong signals. The policy which places emphasis on the enforcement of the lese majeste law has now been rigidly and narrow-mindedly applied, he complained.
“It’s easy for people who have different opinions about politics to be attacked and abused with regard to the application of Section 112. My son only wrote comments on Facebook against the person who was politically hostile [to him], not against the monarchy,” he said.
Tyrell Haberkorn, a fellow at the Australian National University’s political and social changes department, said by placing the prosecution of cases connected to the violation of Section 112 in military courts, where there is no appeal and rights to legal protections are limited, the junta is walking a fine line between continuing with the constitutional monarchy and returning the country to an absolute one.
The rise in the number of charges filed under Section 112 since the coup, and the corresponding expansion of its use as a threat to silence speech and comment, are of grave concern, Dr Haberkorn said.