A U.S. citizen will serve two and a half years in a Thai prison for translating an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and posting it on a website, according to a court ruling.
Joe Wichai Commart Gordon, who was born in Thailand, pleaded guilty on Oct. 10 to using a pen name to translate The King Never Smiles, a biography written by Paul M. Handley in 2006 and published by Yale University Press. Gordon has been detained since his arrest in May. The Criminal Court sentenced Gordon to five years in prison, and cut the penalty two and a half years because of his guilty plea, according to the ruling.
The conviction comes amid a surge in the number of cases alleging insults against the Thai royal family in recent years, sparking a debate over the law’s usefulness. King Bhumibol, who took the throne in 1946 and has his picture hung in the majority of Thai homes out of reverence, turned 84 on Dec. 5.
“Many Thais try to protect him, try to defend him, but in actual fact, the consequence is we ourselves are doing a lot of damage to the monarchy, or even the king himself,” former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun told reporters on Nov. 29 during the launch of a different book about the king’s life. “The harshness of penalties should be reviewed.”
Thailand’s constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.” The lese-majeste law makes it a criminal offense to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. Offenders face as many as 15 years in prison per charge.
Two weeks ago, a retired truck driver was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending four text messages that defamed Queen Sirikit, one of the longest jail terms given under laws protecting the royal family. The European Union delegation in Thailand said it was “deeply concerned” about the sentence and urged Thai authorities to uphold freedom of expression.
Since 2005, a year before former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup, the number of lese-majeste cases before the lower courts has increased 15 times to 478 last year, according to statistics compiled by David Streckfuss, an academic based in northeast Thailand.
The military cited Thaksin’s disrespect of King Bhumibol as one of the reasons it overthrew him. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, took power on Aug. 9 after her Pheu Thai party won a majority in July elections.
Gordon, 54 years old at the time of his arrest, lived for more than 30 years in Colorado, according to Prachatai, a Thailand-based news website. He was arrested on May 24 at his house in northeastern Thailand, where he was born, it said.
The U.S. said it was “disappointed” when prosecutors filed lese-majeste charges against Gordon, who is also charged under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act.
“We have discussed Mr. Gordon’s case extensively with Thai authorities, stressing at every possible opportunity his rights as an American citizen,” the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said in an Aug. 19 statement. “We urge the Thai authorities to ensure freedom of expression is respected and that Mr. Gordon, a U.S. citizen, receives fair treatment.”
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