A Thai political activist was jailed for 11 years Wednesday in the latest tough sentence under the kingdom’s controversial royal defamation law, to the dismay of human rights defenders.
The European Union said it was “deeply concerned” by the punishment imposed on Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, 51, in connection with two articles that appeared in his magazine in 2010.
“The verdict seriously undermines the right to freedom of expression and press freedom,” the EU delegation in Bangkok said in a statement.
Amnesty International, which considers Somyot to be a “prisoner of conscience”, described the Bangkok Criminal Court ruling as “a serious setback for freedom of expression in Thailand”.
Somyot is a supporter of the “Red Shirt” protest group, which is broadly loyal to ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
The activist’s defence team said he would appeal the long jail term, which comprises 10 years for two counts of lese majeste and one year for an earlier suspended defamation sentence.
“I can confirm that he did not intend to violate Article 112,” his lawyer Karom Polpornklang said after the verdict, referring to the lese majeste legislation.
“He was doing his job as a journalist. We will seek bail for him,” he added.
Rights groups noted the activist’s arrest in April 2011 came just days after he launched a campaign to collect 10,000 signatures for a parliamentary review of the lese majeste law.
He was brought to court in shackles, having been held for nearly two years without bail.
“The courts seem to have adopted the role of chief protector of the monarchy at the expense of free expression rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“The court’s ruling appears to be more about Somyot’s strong support for amending the lese majeste law than about any harm incurred by the monarchy.”
The royal family is a highly sensitive subject in politically turbulent Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 85, is revered by many Thais but has been in hospital since September 2009.
Rights campaigners say the lese majeste law has been politicised, noting that many of those charged are linked to the Red Shirt movement.
Under the legislation, anyone convicted of insulting the Thai king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
The death of a 62-year-old lese majeste prisoner serving a 20-year sentence last year fanned controversy over the harsh legislation.
Thailand has been riven by political divisions since Thaksin was topped by royalist generals in a coup in 2006.
Two months of mass street protests by the Red Shirts against the previous government in early 2010 triggered the kingdom’s worst civil violence in decades with 90 people killed, mostly in a bloody military crackdown.
Many Red Shirts seek the return of Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon who lives overseas to avoid a prison sentence for corruption that he contends is politically motivated.
His sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, took office in mid-2011 after a landslide election victory by Thaksin’s allies, but she has said she will not seek to change the royal defamation law.
At a press conference last year, Somyot’s wife Sukanya said the legislation was futile. “You can physically put them in prison, but you cannot jail their thoughts,” she said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]