Thai military courts hand down record prison sentences for insulting monarchy

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 7, 2015

Thailand’s military courts have issued record prison sentences – 30 years and 28 years – against suspects for allegedly defaming the country’s monarchy on Facebook. Two separate verdicts have found the accused guilty of posting content on Facebook that is deemed a violation of the country’s infamously draconian lèse majesté law, also known as Article 112 of the Criminal Code, that states “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

The first sentence was delivered Friday morning in the Thai capital Bangkok:

On Friday morning, 7 August 2015, the Military Court of Bangkok sentenced Pongsak S., a suspect of offences under Article 112 or the lese majeste law and Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act (importing of illegal content into a computer system), to 60 years imprisonment.

The court gave 10 years prison term to each of the six lese majeste counts he was charged with. Since the suspect pleaded guilty as charged, the court, however, halved the sentence to 30 years in jail.

Pongsak used Facebook under the name “Sam Parr” to distribute messages and images defaming the monarchy, which he copied from other sources. At the press conference in January 2015, he pleaded guilty to all charges and said he did so because he was instigated by some Facebook friends. He also said that he went to anti-establishment red-shirt demonstrations.

He told Prachatai that he was tricked into meeting a decoy who had been talking to him via facebook under name ‘Numbannok Rak Seri’ (a free country boy) in the northern province of Tak and was arrested on 30 December 2014 at the bus transit in Phitsanulok Province.

“It turned out when I met the guy at the military base later that he was an officer out of uniform,” said Phongsak.

Military court sets new record on lese majeste sentence; man gets 30 years behind bars“, Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Hours later on the same day, another military court in the northern city of Chiang Mai sentenced a woman to prison:

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the military court of the northern province of Chiang Mai on Friday afternoon, 7 August 2015, sentenced Sasiwimol (surname withheld due to privacy concerns), a 29-year-old employee of a hotel in the province, to 56 years in jail for allegedly posting six lese majeste messages under the Facebook identity ‘Rungnapha Kampichai’.

The military court gave 8 years jail term to each of the 7 lese majeste counts of the suspect. However, since the defendant pleaded guilty as charged, the court halved the jail term to 28 years.

At the deposition hearing in June 2015, the defendant denied all allegations. However, during the plaintiff’s examination hearing today, 7 August 2015, she retracted her pretrial statements and pleaded guilty.

Prior to the ruling, Sasiwimol submitted a letter to the court, requesting the judges to reduce the jail sentence because she has never committed any crime and is a mother of two daughters aged seven and five. The military court judges dismissed the request and reasoned that the jail sentence is already light since case is severe because it is related to the revered Thai monarchy and gravely affected public sentiment of Thai people.

Northern military court sends mother of two to 28 years in prison under lese majeste“, Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Both cases have set an unprecedented record for long prison sentences, since the court issued the punishment per offense that was deemed not only a violation of the lèse majesté law, but also to the Computer Crimes Act. In other words, the accused were punished twice for allegedly violating two vaguely worded laws and also accumulated a long prison term because the courts counted each Facebook post as separate offense. Both defendants have pleaded guilty not only to halve their sentences (the fact that they were still unprecedentedly long is telling) but also to keep the possibility of a royal pardon open.

Lèse majesté-related complaints have sky-rocketed in the past decade (regardless of who was in power) thanks to self-proclaimed ultra-nationalist vigilantes as more verdicts have shown increasingly looser interpretations of the law, rendering a reasonable debate or even a possible amendment of the law impossible. To make matters worse, ever since Thailand’s military – which sees itself as the defender of the Thai monarchy – took power in the coup of May 22, 2014, it has transferred jurisdiction of lèse majesté cases to military courts. Unsurprisingly, the number of cases have piled up under the  junta.

The Thai military government is fighting against lèse majesté suspects at multiple fronts: evidently, social media is under increased surveillance and Facebook itself reported a sharp increase of blocked content in the second half of 2014, while it also states that Thai authorities have requested information of certain Facebook users three times.

Furthermore, the junta is hunting a number activists charged with lèse majesté that have fled abroad, often resulting in diplomatic spats, and other repeated requests to countries that have granted asylum to the prosecuted suspects.