A Thai man who helped lead anti-government protests was sentenced to seven and half years in jail for insulting the royal family.
Surachai Danwattananusorn, 68, had a 15-year prison term cut in half because he pleaded guilty to the charges, Bangkok’s Criminal Court said today. His legal team will seek a royal pardon, even as police investigate an additional complaint against Surachai, lawyer Karom Ponpornklang told reporters.
“Surachai has accused the monarchy of being behind protests and conflicts in the country,” the court said in its ruling. “This is not true as the monarchy’s activities are for the benefit of Thai people. His move is considered a severe offense and does not deserve a suspended punishment. He’s mature and he still does this.”
The sentence adds to a growing number of lese-majeste convictions that has prompted a group of local professors to start a signature campaign to amend the law, sparking criticism from the army chief. The U.S., European Union and United Nations have called on Thailand to respect freedom of speech following convictions last year.
The law, which falls under Article 112 of the criminal code, mandates jail sentences as long as 15 years for defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. Last month the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 started gathering 10,000 signatures to change the law, including reducing the maximum penalty to three years for insulting the king and two years for other family members.
Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha this month urged law professors backing the movement to stop their efforts, the Bangkok Post reported on Feb. 6. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, took the throne in 1946 and serves as head of state. Thailand’s constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.”
Surachai is among 12 leaders of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, known as the Red Shirts, who haven’t received bail after being charged with insulting the royal family, Human Rights Watch said on Feb. 25. The Red Shirts led protests against the former government in 2009 and 2010 in which more than 90 people died.
Surachai pleaded guilty in part because he has been denied bail since being detained a year ago and was suffering from a heart condition, hypertension and diabetes, Human Rights Watch said. He led a group called Red Siam, a faction of the Red Shirts that expressed anti-monarchy opinions, the group said.
The number of lese-majeste cases before Thailand’s lower courts increased to 478 in 2010 from 33 in 2005, a year before the coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, according to statistics compiled by the campaign committee. Thaksin’s sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, took power in August after Thaksin’s allies won a majority in July elections.
U.S. citizen Joe Gordon, who was born in Thailand and also goes by the name Lerpong Wichaikhammat, received a two-and-a-half year prison sentence on Dec. 8 for translating an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol and posting it on a website. Two weeks earlier, Ampol Tangnoppakul, 61, received a 20-year jail term for sending four text messages that defamed Queen Sirikit.