Indigenous man convicted for royal defamation and denied bail

A 38-year-old indigenous Karen man from Mae Hong Son has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for royal defamation and sedition over 4 Facebook posts and denied bail.

Phonchai Wimonsuphawong (Photo by iLaw)

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) reported on Monday (13 March) that the Chiang Mai Provincial Court has found Phonchai Wimonsuphawong, 38, guilty of royal defamation, sedition, and violation of the Computer Crimes Act for 4 Facebook posts made between 18 October and 19 November 2020.

The complaint against him was filed by Jessada Thunkeaw, a former protest guard for the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), who accused Phonchai of 4 Facebook posts about the King’s involvement in politics and inviting people to join protests. However, Phonchai said that he did not make the posts, as his Facebook account was stolen at the time.

Phonchai was arrested on 10 March 2021 at his residence in Nonthaburi on a warrant issued by the Chiang Mai Provincial Court. He was then denied bail and held in pre-trial detention at Chiang Mai Remand Prison for 44 days before being released on 22 April 2021.

On Monday (13 March), the Chiang Mai Provincial Court found him guilty on all 4 counts of royal defamation, sedition, and violation of the Computer Crimes Act on the grounds that the posts refer to King Vajiralongkorn using inappropriate language and contain false information, and also invited people to join illegal gatherings. He was sentenced to a total of 12 years in prison.

The court also ruled that, although Phonchai said his account was stolen, he did not present evidence that this was true, and he would have pressed charges or tried to find the culprit if his account was stolen. Since he said the account was his, and there is a video clip of Phonchai introducing himself on the account, the Court believes that he made the posts.

Following his sentencing, Phonchai’s lawyer filed a bail request, but the Chiang Mai District Court forwarded the request to the Appeal Court for consideration, and he was taken to Chiang Mai Remand Prison.

On Tuesday (14 March), the Appeal Court denied Phonchai bail on the grounds that he committed a serious offense, and since he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, he is likely to flee if released.

Phonchai was previously granted bail by the Yala Provincial Court, after he was found guilty of royal defamation and sentenced to 3 years in prison, reduced to 2 because he gave useful testimony. The Court also only found him guilty of a Facebook video he posted of himself talking about the pro-democracy protests in October 2020, and not for 2 other Facebook posts he said were made after his account was stolen, because evidence presented by the prosecution did not contain the posts’ URLs, and the inquiry officer testified that they were not sure if the images of the posts are accurate.

According to TLHR, he is also facing 5 other charges from joining protests in Bangkok. He received a fine in one case, while the public prosecutor dismissed another case.

38-year-old Phonchai comes from an indigenous Karen community in Mae Hong Son’s Mae La Noi District. After leaving home as a teenager, Phonchai worked in a restaurant in Chiang Mai in exchange for food and accommodation. He then decided to move to Bangkok to find work. He said in an interview with TLHR that he spent around a year homeless before getting a job as a security guard. Before he was charged, he has been working as a salesman, going from house to house selling mobile phones or helping real estate agents.

Phonchai said he first joined a protest on 14 October 2020, and then on 16 October 2020, both of which were met with police violence. He told TLHR that he wanted to be an example for indigenous people and show that they can participate in political movements and fight for their rights.

He noted that having to travel back and fourth from Nonthaburi to Yala and Chiang Mai meant he lost time he could have been working, and it cost him a considerable amount of money, but his travel expenses have been covered by the Da Torpedo Fund, which supports political prisoners and covers the expenses of people fighting political charges.

Phonchai said he joined the protests because he wanted to see changes in the country and because he wanted indigenous peoples to have equal access to rights and opportunities, such as education and employment, and for them to be free from discrimination.

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