A food delivery rider has been found guilty and sentenced to prison on a royal defamation charge for allegedly attempting to burn a portrait of King Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida during a protest in July 2021. The court ruled that a portrait of the King is worth the same as the King’s person.
Sitthichok Sethasavet (Photo by iLaw)
UPDATE: On 19 January 2023, the Court of Appeals has denied bail request from Sitthichok Sethasavet, a food delivery rider who had been found guilty and sentenced to prison yesterday on a royal defamation charge, arson, and others.
The order stated that Sitthichok's bail was denied due to the gravity of the punishment and that his offence showed a sign of not afraid of law. Moreover, his offence affects the "feeling and good moral of the people". Hence, releasing him might result in him repeating the wrongdoing or flee.
However, it is noted that the order was issued on 29 April 2022, long before the ruling takes place.
26-year-old Foodpanda delivery rider Sitthichok Sethasavet was accused of burning a portrait of King Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida at a royal ceremonial arch on Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue during a protest on 18 July 2021. He was charged with royal defamation, arson, destruction of property, and violation of the Emergency Decree.
Sitthichok said that he was on his way to deliver an order when he passed through the protest on Ratchadamnoen Nok and saw a fire at the royal arch. Since he has experience volunteering in an emergency rescue unit, he tried to put out the fire using a bottle of water mixed with purple grape-flavoured soda that he carried in his motorcycle to drink while working during the day. He told iLaw that, while he was spraying water onto the base of the portrait, a police officer came to tell him to get down from the arch and that the officer would get a water cannon to put out the fire. But when he get off the arch, the fire had already been put out, so he went to deliver his order and then went home.
It was later found during witness examination that the portrait of the King and Queen was not damaged in the fire, which only damaged decorative fabric at the base of the royal arch.
In the evening of 18 July 2021, a picture of Sitthichok standing by his motorcycle was posted on Twitter, along with a claim that he set fire to the King and Queen’s portrait. Because the photo also showed a pink Foodpanda delivery box, the company’s official account replied to the tweet saying the platform has a policy “against violence and all forms of terrorism” and that the rider in question would be fired immediately. It also said that the platform is willing to help the authorities in pressing charges against the culprit.
The platform’s action sparked outrage among netizens for equating protesters with terrorists and for seemingly supporting authoritarianism and prejudice against its rider without a proper investigation. The hashtag #banfoodpanda trended on Twitter as users called for a boycott of the platform. Foodpanda then released a letter apologizing for its message and said that the company was investigating the incident.
Sitthichok was arrested at his house in Rangsit on 19 July 2021. He was released on 20 July on bail of 100,000 baht.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) said that yesterday (17 January), the Ratchadaphisek Criminal Court found Sitthichok guilty on all charges on the grounds that there is no evidence he was trying to put out the fire, and because the prosecution witness testified that the fire grew stronger when Sitthicok sprayed a bottle of purple liquid on the royal arch. The court also said that, even if the portrait did not catch fire, spraying the liquid at the base of the portrait, which was already on fire, meant that Sitthichok intended to burn the portrait.
The court ruled that he was guilty of royal defamation, because a prosecution witness testified that the Thai society sees a portrait of the King as being the same as the King himself. It should therefore be respected and cared for. The court also said that he was guilty because Thailand is a democracy with the King as the head of state, and therefore people should not exercise their freedom in a way that is against the monarchy.
The Court sentenced Sitthichok to a total of 3 years and 6 months in prison. Because he gave useful testimony, his sentence was reduced to 2 years and 4 months.
His lawyer then requested bail for him with an additional security of 100,000 baht, but the Criminal Court ruled that it will forward the bail request to the Appeal Court for consideration. He will be detained at Bangkok Remand Prison until a ruling is made.