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Following the death of pro-democracy activist Netiporn 'Bung' Sanesangkhom, the Clooney Foundation for Justice filed a petition with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on Netiporn's behalf seeking remedies for violations of her rights, including reparations for her family and an opinion from the Working Group urging Thailand to stop misusing detention to stifle criticism of the monarchy.

Netiporn's picture placed at her funeral. (Photo by Ginger Cat)

Thai activist Netiporn ‘Bung’ Sanesangkhom died in custody on May 14 following a 65-day hunger strike. Today, the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative took the 28-year-old’s case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Charged with lèse majesté, a law that criminalizes criticism of the Thai monarchy, Netiporn was facing six criminal cases when she died. She had been on hunger strike not just once, but twice—both times to protest the imprisonment of peaceful activists.

TrialWatch is seeking remedies for violations of Netiporn’s rights, including reparations for her family and, more broadly, an opinion from the Working Group urging Thailand to stop misusing detention to stifle criticism of the monarchy.

According to the NGO Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, more than 270 people have been charged with lèse majesté over the last four years. In January 2024, a Thai court sent an activist to prison for 50 years—the longest lèse majesté sentence ever—for Facebook posts. In addition to Netiporn, three other activists in prison have gone on hunger strike so far this year.

“Thailand’s lèse majesté law is a blunt instrument of oppression against Thai citizens exercising their rights, under international law, of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and freedom from arbitrary detention,” said TrialWatch Expert and Former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues David J. Scheffer.

Before her death, Netiporn had been in and out of prison for two years on charges relating to her involvement in organizing a peaceful and informal poll in February 2022. The poll sought the public’s views on whether motorcades carrying members of the royal family were an inconvenience to the public, which Thai authorities alleged to be an insult to the monarchy and sedition.

Indeed, the government’s clampdown on criticism of the monarchy appears to be escalating: TrialWatch is monitoring a case in which one of the defendants is facing charges simply for repeating UN views of the lèse majesté law. In January, the Thai Constitutional Court ruled that a political party’s efforts to reform the law were tantamount to treason. This is all despite the recently elected Thai government’s attempt to frame itself as “representing a ‘new page’ in democracy and respect for human rights,” including through bidding for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council and securing a partnership agreement with the European Union.

One concerning tactic in lèse majesté cases is that courts either deny defendants bail pending trial on the ground that they ‘have committed an offense’ or offer bail on the condition that they refrain from activism. Netiporn refused to stop her activism and, as a result, her bail was revoked on two separate occasions. TrialWatch’s submission to the UN Working Group argues that these bail restrictions and their subsequent revocation compounded the human rights violations in Netiporn’s case and urges the Working Group to declare her detention unlawful and make clear that activists cannot be forced into the choice between being silenced or going to jail while awaiting trial on lèse majesté charges.

“There is much work to be done now to challenge the vagueness and misguided enforcement of the lèse majesté law and to ensure that Thailand does not obtain membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council until it protects fundamental human rights, which it so woefully failed to do in Netiporn’s case,” added Scheffer.

Netiporn’s tragic death should be a wake-up call both to the Thai government, which should finally heed calls for reforming its lèse majesté law, and to the international community, particularly as countries vote on Thailand’s UN Human Rights Council bid in October.

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