The Criminal Court yesterday sentenced a prominent labour activist and magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk to 10 years' imprisonment for publishing two articles deemed to violate the lèse majesté law, amidst international concerns about freedom of expression in Thailand.
The judges said that Somyot was guilty because, as editor, he acknowledged and allowed the defamatory articles to be published in a magazine called "Voice of Taksin". Somyot defended himself by saying that, according to the 2007 Publishing Act, the publisher is not responsible for the content of a publication.
About 200 observers from the general public, the diplomatic community and civil society attended the verdict yesterday.
The verdict prompted concerns from international organizations, such as the European Union and Human Rights Watch. Amnesty International had earlier described Somyot as a "Prisoner of Conscience" and called for international action in support of his release.
The case "seriously undermines the right to freedom of expression and press freedom", and "affects Thailand's image as a free and democratic society," stated the European Union
Somyot testified in an earlier hearing that the articles, published under the pseudonym "Jit Polachan", were written by Jakrapob Penkair, former Minister to the Prime Minister's Office in a Thaksin Shinawatra government. Jakrapob has not been charged with writing the articles.
Somyot has been detained in Bangkok Remand Prison without bail since April 2011, five days after he launched a public campaign to abolish Article 112, the lèse majesté law. His lawyer Karom Polpornklang said that he had requested bail 11 times, but that the court rejected all requests because of the ‘severity’ of the charge
Somyot, who was also a leader of the June 24th for Democracy group, a Red Shirt faction, will seek bail and appeal the case immediately, his lawyer said.
In 2009 Somyot was given a one-year suspended jail term for giving a speech in 2007 which the court deemed was defamatory of a leader of the 2006 coup, Gen Saprang Kalayanamit. The court yesterday revoked the suspension, increasing Somyot's sentence to 11 years.
Sukanya Prueksakasemsuk, Somyot's wife, said the verdict quite surprised her. Since Somyot was merely a publisher, she said, he shouldn't be held responsible for content published in the magazine, and hence should be acquitted.
"This illustrates that lèse majesté is interpreted very widely and inclusively. An incident like this could have happened to anyone especially those who work in the media. So we must continue to fight, otherwise this will become a social norm, and the media will be silenced out of fear of being prosecuted under this law," she said.
The two articles found defamatory were fictional stories, with a background in Thailand's modern history. The first article stated that a "mentally ill old person" was trying to plot the assassination of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that the "old person" was a mastermind behind the people's massacre in October 6, 1976. The other article said that a character named "Luang Naruban" had been controlling governments and politics in Thailand since the era of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat.
The court said even though the characters are fictional, the interpretation of Thailand's history indicated that the author intended to link the characters with the monarchy.
Somyot's sentence came one week after Yossawaris Chuklom, a Red Shirt activist and comedian, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for giving speeches deemed insulting to the monarchy during a political rally in 2010.
“Authorities in Thailand have in recent years increasingly used laws, including the lèse majesté law, to silence peaceful dissent and imprison prisoners of conscience", said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director. "The lèse majesté law should immediately be suspended and revised so that it complies with Thailand’s international human rights obligations.”
Somyot supporters protested in front of the Criminal Court after the verdict was read.