Thailand on Wednesday said a Thai-born US citizen jailed for insulting the kingdom’s revered monarch had been granted a royal pardon, in a move welcomed by the United States.
Joe Wichai Commart Gordon, a car salesman from Colorado, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in December under the kingdom’s strict lese majeste laws, which rights campaigners say are used to stifle freedom of expression.
Gordon “was granted a royal pardon yesterday”, a senior Corrections Department official told AFP on Wednesday. Bangkok Remand Prison said he left the jail late Tuesday.
The 55-year-old was arrested in May on a visit to the kingdom and accused of posting the material deemed offensive online — a banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej that he translated into Thai — while living in the United States.
His conviction drew protest from the US, which said he was exercising his right to free speech.
Gordon’s release comes just days before a planned meeting between Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a US business forum in Cambodia.
“We are pleased that US citizen Joe Gordon was granted a royal pardon which allows him to be released from prison,” said US embassy official Walter Braunohler.
“We urge Thai authorities on a regular basis both privately and publicly to ensure that freedom of expression is protected in accordance with international obligations.”
Gordon was taken to the US embassy on release, according to his lawyer Anon Numpa.
He said Gordon was one of four prisoners who have sought royal pardons in lese majeste cases, but so far only his case has been approved.
Under Thailand’s lese majeste legislation, anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
Gordon was initially sentenced to five years in prison, but the Thai Criminal Court halved the term because he pleaded guilty to publishing the banned biography online.
Speaking to AFP in prison just hours before his release on Tuesday, Gordon said he had heard that he could be freed but could not quite believe it.
“It’s good… I had heard that yesterday,” he said. “But it could still be a rumour.”
The royal family is a highly sensitive topic in politically turbulent Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is revered as a demi-god by many Thais, has been hospitalised since September 2009.
Gordon’s conviction put the international spotlight on Thailand’s increasingly controversial lese majeste prosecutions, which observers say have surged following a coup that removed fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.
In May a Thai online editor was handed a suspended jail term for failing to remove a comment critical of the revered monarchy on her website, prompting Google to issue a stark warning over Internet freedom in the kingdom. She faces decades in a separate case that has yet to be tried.
Scrutiny of the law has intensified since the death of a 62-year-old Thai man this month while serving a 20-year sentence for committing lese majeste.