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Verdict against Move Forward MP "appalling violation of free expression," says HRW

The conviction of Move Forward Party MP Rukchanok Srinork for royal defamation charge was a violation of freedom of expression and sends a message to opposition party members to keep silent, says Human Rights Watch, who call for such use of the justice system to silence opposition lawmakers to be taken in account by countries being asked to consider Thailand’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council.

Rachanok Srinork at court yesterday (13 December)
(Photo by Chanakarn Laosarakham)

A Thai criminal court sentenced an opposition member of parliament to six years in prison under Thailand’s laws prohibiting “insulting the monarchy,” Human Rights Watch said today. 29-year-old Rukchanok “Ice” Srinork of the Move Forward Party was convicted on December 13, 2023, for committing lese majeste (royal defamation) and violating the Computer-Related Crimes Act.

The charges against Rukchanok violated her rights to freedom of expression protected under international human rights law. One concerned a post to the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that discussed a pharmaceutical company linked to the monarch that was involved in manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines. The second was a retweet of a historical anti-monarchy comment. The Thai authorities should immediately quash the verdict.

“The prosecution of an opposition member of parliament for two tweets is not only an appalling violation of free expression, but sends a chilling message to other outspoken opposition party members to keep silent,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai authorities should quash this sentence, and cease prosecuting other cases under the lese majeste law.”

Hours after being sentenced, Rukchanok requested bail, which the court granted on the basis of 500,000 Thai baht (US$14,000) bond and the condition that she not reoffend while she appeals the sentence.

Since the 2020-2021 pro-democracy demonstrations, the right to freedom of expression has increasingly come under attack in Thailand. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Bangkok and other cities to call for political reform, a new constitution, respect for civil and political liberties, and the reform of the monarchy. The government of then Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha violently cracked down on democracy protests, arresting hundreds of people over several months.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reports since early 2020, at least 1,925 people in Thailand have faced prosecution for exercising their rights to freedom of expression. More than 200 people, including many young student activists, have been charged under penal code article 112 (lese majeste), which criminalizes criticism of the monarchy with sentences of up to 15 years per charge.

The Thai government has also widely used the Computer-Crimes Act as a tool to suppress critical speech online, and prosecute critics of the government or monarchy across the country. The language in the law is broad and wide reaching, allowing authorities to prosecute almost any form of online speech that displeases them. Despite the risks of speaking out, many democracy activists have continued to publicly press for reforms.

As of September, the government was holding at least 23 activists in pretrial detention for participating in democracy rallies or committing acts that authorities view as insulting to the royal family. Some of those detained include prominent student activists, politicians, young children, and an older person who was jailed for 43 years for breaking royal defamation laws.

The Thai government recently announced a campaign to seek a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 2025-2027 term, and pledged to take steps to improve its human rights record.

“The authorities’ case against Rukchanok was politically motivated and should never have been brought in the first place,” Pearson said. “The reckless use of the criminal justice system to go after opposition party lawmakers should be taken into account by countries being asked to consider Thailand’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council.”

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