John Reed in Bangkok
A Thai court has sentenced a woman to a record 43.5 years in prison for sharing social media posts deemed insulting to the royal family under the kingdom’s tough lèse majesté law.
The conviction of Anchan Preelert on Tuesday came amid a crackdown against pro-democracy protesters, with dozens of people charged since November under Article 112 of the criminal code. Civil liberties groups interpreted the verdict as a warning by Thailand’s military-backed government to the country’s six-month-old pro-democracy movement to rein in its criticism of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family.
Anchan, a former civil servant, was originally sentenced to 87 years but this was halved to 43.5 years because she pleaded guilty.
“The signal is very clear: not only that criticism of the monarchy won’t be tolerated, but that it will also be punished to the extreme,” said Sunai Phasuk, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Thailand’s lèse majesté law carries a maximum sentence of 15 years for people found guilty of making remarks deemed defamatory or insulting to the king or his immediate family. The government has defended the law, the harshest of its kind in the world, as necessary to protect the royal family from libel but human rights groups describe it as a basic threat to freedom of expression.
Anchan was prosecuted under 29 counts of violating the law and violating the kingdom’s computer-related crimes act for uploading audio clips from Banpodj, an antimonarchist broadcasting network, to YouTube and Facebook.
She was arrested by 10 plainclothes and uniformed soldiers in January 2015, when the king’s father Bhumibol Adulyadej was still on the throne, according to iLaw, a Thai human rights group.
Anchan’s case began in a military court in July 2015, when Thailand was still under emergency rule following a coup. Her trial was held in secret, as is common in most other lèse majesté cases.
The decision to hold the trial without observers was made after “the court considered the complaint and found messages that can create damage against the King, the Queen and the Heir”, said iLaw. After more than three years in jail, Anchan was released on bail in late 2019.
Thailand’s youth-led, pro-democracy protesters have made abolishing Article 112 a core objective. In a movement that began gaining force last July, participants have aired unprecedented criticism of the king’s powers and personal fortune, the fact that he lives mostly in Germany and the disappearances and murders of Thai anti-government exiles.
The demonstrations have died down since December after a new wave of coronavirus infections prompted the government to ban large gatherings.
Authorities had largely refrained from bringing lèse majesté charges after King Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in 2016. Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s prime minister and former military junta chief, said last year that the law had not been invoked at the wishes of the king.
However, according to Human Rights Watch, authorities have opened lèse majesté cases against at least 54 people since November, including several young people who were arrested at the weekend for spraying graffiti criticising Article 112. Police on Saturday broke up two protests in Bangkok calling for the law to be revoked and arrested several people.