THAILAND: Twenty years in prison for four SMS messages

The Asian Human Rights Commission wishes to express grave concern over the latest conviction and sentence of a person in Thailand for a crime of freedom of expression. On 23 November 2011, in Black Case No. 311/2554, Ampon Tangnoppakul (also known as 'Arkong'), a 61-year-old man, was sentenced to twenty years in prison for four alleged violations of Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. Ampon’s crime was to allegedly send four SMS messages to Somkiat Klongwattanasak, personal secretary of the former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. iLaw, a Thai legal NGO, reported that the four SMS messages were alleged by the authorities to contain vulgar language and to defame the Thai queen and to insult the honor of the monarchy. The precise content of the SMS messages has not been made public by the authorities and because repetition of alleged lesè majesté content itself constitutes a violation of the law, reporters are unable to report the precise content of the messages without then becoming subject to criminal prosecution themselves.

Compounding the injustice of this sentence, Ampon Tangnoppakul is suffering from laryngeal cancer and had been unable to access proper treatment during detention before and during his trial. There is no reason to believe that this will change now that he has been convicted, and, in fact, depending on what prison he is transferred to, there may be further concerns over his safety and well-being. As has been clear in the case of Daranee Charnchoengskilpakul, currently serving an eighteen-year sentence for alleged lesè majesté and who suffers from severe jaw disease, the authorities have no qualms about denying necessary medical treatment and violating the rights of political prisoners.

On 3 August 2010, a group of 15 police officers raided Ampon Tangnoppakul’s house and arrested him. He was detained for 63 days of pre-charge detention before being granted bail on 4 October 2010. He was then formally charged by the prosecutor on 18 January 2011 with violations of Article 112 and the Computer Crimes Act, and has been incarcerated since then. The court refused bail on the basis of the gravity of his crime and the possibility of flight. His trial took place on 23 and 27-30 September 2011. From the beginning, Ampon maintained his innocence, noting that he did not know to send SMS messages and that the number that sent the message to Somkiat was not his number.  The response of the prosecutor to this was to discount it, and note that as the IMEI number of the cell phone that sent the messages to Somkiat belonged to Ampon, then he was responsible.

In the years since the 19 September 2006 coup, and particularly in the last 2 years, there has been a vast expansion of the use of both Article 112 and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. iLaw, a Thai legal rights NGO, noted that while Ampon was convicted of violations of Article 112 and the Computer Crimes Act of 2007, he was sentenced under Article 112, as it provides for harsher penalties. Since the passage of the Computer Crimes Act, the two have increasingly been used together to silence dissenting speech and intimidate activists and citizens. Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code notes that, "Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years." The relevant section of the Computer Crimes Act in this case is Section 14, Parts 2 and 3, which specify: "If any person commits any offense of the following acts shall be subject to imprisonment for not more than five years or a fine of not more than one hundred thousand baht or both: (2) that involves import to a computer system of false computer data in a manner than it likely to damage the country's security or cause a public panic; (3) that involves import to a computer system of any computer data related with an offence against the Kingdom's security under the Criminal Code." The definition of "computer system" is noted in Section 3 as "a piece of equipment or set of equipment units, whose function is integrated together, for which sets of instructions and working principles enable it or them to perform the duty of processing data automatically." The way in which this law is written, and as this case evidences, means that the Computer Crimes Act of 2007 may be used to target communication and speech using various forms of transmitting technology, not only computers per se.  This conviction sends a clear message to people in Thailand: be careful, because your SMS messages may be scrutinized for criminal content and then you will be liable to a long prison sentence. The lack of a definition of "security" within the law means that there are wide opportunities for abuse as the authorities can define any dissident or otherwise objectionable content to violate the "security" of the nation.

In a statement released by the Human Rights Lawyers Association (HRLA) and the Ratsadornprasong Legal Institute (RLI) prior to yesterday’s reading of the conviction, a letter written from Ampon’s daughter to another detainee who was taking care of her father in jail noted:

"What we are most concerned about is our father’s mental fatigue and despondency. Strength is almost gone already. Our requests for bail is always denied ... But the suffering of our family is eased because of you being by our father's side giving him strength...I know that we are not alone fighting for justice , there are many other people who also fight injustice. They fight for justice and freedom for the people who face injustice like us. We are all brothers and sisters, so do not get discouraged and keep on fighting for our father. We must be strong for people who are detained inside. We never thought that this would happen to us as it seem unreal for our family as Thais who greatly love and admire the monarchy. We are regretful that this institution is used for political purposes without them knowing it. It is painful for all us Thais because we love and respect the monarchy more than anything else. We have to fight against injustices in this country because this kind of case is used as a political tool against small people like us whom are treated like ants, termites and used as scapegoats."

The Asian Human Rights Commission wishes to express grave concern over this conviction and sentence of a person in Thailand for a crime of freedom of expression -- .  Ampon Tangnoppakul has been sentenced to the longest period in prison to date for alleged violations of Article 112 and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. Particularly given the weak nature of the evidence deployed against him, and the extenuating circumstances of health and age, this case indicates that the Thai judiciary has become a place where justice is foreclosed and injustice flourishes. When murderers walk free, as they did in the case of the disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaijit, yet a 61-year-old man can be imprisoned for twenty years for allegedly sending four SMS messages with alleged anti-monarchy content, it is clear than human rights are in deep crisis in Thailand. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission calls for the immediate release of Ampon Tangnoppakul and all others imprisoned for crimes of freedom of expression under Article 112 and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. The Asian Human Rights Commission will continue to closely follow all other cases of alleged violations of Article 112 and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, and encourages all others concerned with human rights and justice in Thailand to do so as well.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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