In two separate cases, military courts on 7 August handed down the harshest Article 112 (lèse-majesté) sentences yet. That morning, the Bangkok court slapped a man, Phongsaks S., with 60 years in prison, reduced to 30 in consideration of his confession. That afternoon, the provincial military court in Chiang Mai ordered a young mother, Ssiwimon, (surnames withheld to maintain privacy) to serve 56 years in prison, reduced to 28 due to her confession.
Both prosecutions were based on multiple Facebook posts and both defendants chose to plead guilty rather than to contest the charges at trial. Occurring in the North, Sasiwimon’s case has not received much media attention and unlike Pongsak’s her case did not involve explicitly political expression, but arose from a personal dispute. The full truth of the affair has not yet come to light, but armed with the confession, the court came down with an extremely harsh sentence.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) has monitored the case from the time it was submitted to the court and the defendant engaged a defense attorney. Following the judgment, TLHR reviewed the case and spoke with the defendant and her family. Though Sasiwimon initially denied any wrongdoing, she changed her plea to guilty in the final stage of the process. The following is based on information collected by TLHR.
Mother of two
Sasiwimon, 29, of Chiang Mai worked at a hotel beverage counter serving tea, coffee and other beverages. Her mother originated in Kamphaeng Phet but moved to Chiang Mai after marriage to Sasiwimon’s father. The couple later separated and she raised Sasiwimon, her only daughter, as a single mother.
Sasiwimon completed high school through passing adult education examinations and worked in a restaurant promoting beer sales (also known as a “beer girl”) before taking the job serving beverages in the hotel. She married a laborer and had two daughters with him, now 10 and seven and in fourth and second grade in a Chiang Mai school.
Her husband eventually took a new wife and the two divorced with Sasiwimon maintaining custody of the children. At some point before this case arose, the Court ordered the husband to pay 3,000 baht a month in child support until the youngest had completed school. The husband gave no assistance in raising the children beyond the ordered child support.
Before her arrest, Sasiwimon was living in a rented home with her daughters and 48 year old mother. Her mother worked as a housekeeper at the same hotel as Sasiwimon, and both earned 9,000 baht a month. The mother has a chronic illness and must take regular medication and Sasiwimon acted as head of household, caring for all four persons.
She and her family confirm that she was not involved in politics and had never participated in political rallies of any kind.
A personal dispute leads to a criminal case
The story begins 27 September 2014 when a group calling itself “Facebook Chiang Mai”, led by Rit Yiammethakon along with eight others, arrived at a Chiang Mai police station to accuse a Facebook user under the name “Rungnapa Kampichai” of posting materials violating Article 112 on Facebook. They bullied her by circulating photos from Rungnapa Facebook account and personal information for her to be condemned.
On the 29 September, members of Facebook Chiang Mai gave testimony to an investigator and held signs calling for rapid prosecution. It was reported that Rungnapa Kampichai contacted Facebook Chiang Mai claiming that she had not posted the offending materials but that she was the victim of slander by someone fraudulently using her name. It is known that at the time Rungnapa informed authorities of who she believed had fraudulently used her name for the Facebook account then there is no news of how the case proceeded or of how Sasiwimon protected herself over the subsequent months.
Sasiwimon says that Rungnapa is her former husband’s new wife and that they had fought in the past. She says that an acquaintance from her days as a beer girl suggested spreading malicious information on the woman and volunteered to do it for her as a revenge. The friend used her computer to create a new email account and a Facebook account under Rungnapa’s name. Sasiwimon says she did not know that her friend would post materials in violation of Article 112. She claims that she never posted anything under that name; she doesn’t know the account password and she is now unable to contact the friend.
Pressure to confess
Towards the end of September of 2014, a plainclothes police officer came to her home at six in the morning. The children had not yet risen and her mother had just gone to work. The police officer had a search warrant and told her it had to do with a lèse-majesté investigation. She did not realize that she herself was under suspicion until the officer took a computer and two mobile phones for investigation.
She was asked to go the police station, and since there was no one to look after the children she brought the youngest with her. She was questioned by two investigators who showed her images taken from a computer screen. At first, she denied having made the posts, but the responding officer suggested that if she acknowledged the posts there would be no serious repercussions; they would let her go and could use their positions as police officers to assist her in the future.
She acknowledged the posts, not knowing the seriousness of Article 112 violations. She had never before had dealings with the authorities or had had to go to the police station and knew nothing of the process. That, together with the pressure of circumstances, including the fact that the daughter she had brought along was unwell and that her employer was calling repeatedly for her to come to work, made her eager to end the ordeal. She felt that if she said whatever would end the questioning she would be able to go about her affairs. She did not think about the possibility of prison. In the end, she confessed to the investigators with no attorney present and was allowed to return home.
In October, the police contacted Sasiwimon to ask for an interview with her mother at the station. The mother says that the police asked in general whether she had seen her daughter on the computer, what she did on the computer and when. They asked whether her daughter went to bed late. She answered that she had seen her daughter watch movies on the computer with her granddaughters and that she knew nothing beyond that.
There were no immediate further developments and Sasiwimon did not imagine that the case would end with her going to prison. She made no effort to go into hiding.
Then, in February of 2015 when she and her mother were at a funeral for her grandfather in Kamphaeng Phet, the police phoned and directed her to sign some documents at the police station. She made an appointment to report on February 13.
At the station, she was informed that she was accused of violating Article 112 with six Facebook posts under the name of Rungnapa Kamphichai. The same day she was sent to the military court jail, having made no advance preparations. Her mother went to a bail bondsman and offered bail of 400,000 baht but the Court denied bail, citing fears that she would flee. Sasiwimon was then remanded to the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison. Her mother offered bail two more times, increasing the amount to 450,000 baht, but each time Court denied bail.
After two weeks, Sasiwimon was informed of an additional count of lèse-majesté for a post made in September 2014. She was now facing seven counts of violating Article 112. Her pre-charge detention was renewed seven times before the military prosecutor filed formal charges with the court on 7 May, the last day of the allowed pre-charge detention period.
The judicial process: pursuit of truth derailed
Sasiwimon’s mother engaged a lawyer from a Chiang Mai firm to assist in the case and Sasiwimon told the lawyer that she did not post the materials. They agreed that she should deny the charges, gaining time to review the evidence and plan a defense. The initial plan was to show that at the time the posts were made she was at work and unable to access the Internet.
At a military court hearing in April 2015, she pleaded not guilty to the charges. The case was deemed to involve national security and to have impact on domestic peace and order and the session was accordingly closed, with relatives and others not directly concerned expelled from the courtroom before charges were read and testimony sought.
The following month, the parties to the case met to review the evidence and submit lists of witnesses. The defending attorney examined the prosecutor’s documentary evidence and the Court questioned the parties on their approach to the case. The prosecuting attorney said that he would submit witnesses, documents and materials showing that the defendant was guilty. The defending attorney said that he would seek to identify the actual perpetrator and show that the prosecutor’s evidence was insufficient to prove that the defendant was guilty of the charges.
Relatives and other observers were permitted at this session as it involved only a preliminary review of evidence. They would not be permitted to attend the actual trial when the evidence would be opened and examined in detail.
Prior to the trial, the defense lawyer advised his client to change her plea to guilty. Having examined the evidence he saw very little room left to fight the charges. The fact that she had confessed during the initial investigation and signed various documents made the evidence against her that much more incriminating. If they contested the charges and lost, the court might impose a more severe sentence and he said that he would petition the court for a suspended, delayed or light sentence and that she could later request a royal pardon.
At first, Sasiwimon’s mother was unsure that a guilty plea was a good idea given that her daughter said that she had not committed the crime. But Sasiwimon told her that the punishment would not likely be harsh and she felt sorry for her mother for having to take care of everything. The mother did not imagine that the punishment would be as harsh as it turned out to be.
In the end Sasiwimon decided to change her plea to guilty.
We don’t know whether or not Ms Sasiwimon’s story is true, who posted the material in question or how the case would have turned out under the full Article 112 process. Holding the suspect without bail created a situation pressuring her to confess guilt rather than to contest the charges at trial. As a result, the evidence was never subjected to the scrutiny of the Court and its validity has not been determined.
28 years for a 29 year old mother
No one expected the Court to pass immediate judgment the day she changed her plea, and her attorney sent a legal assistant in his place. The assistant received clearance to attend the secret proceedings and authority to submit the changed plea and confession that morning before the proceedings. It was expected that the judge would set a court date the following month, giving the Court time to consider the plea and confession and to write a judgment. However, that’s not what happened.
The prison delivered Sasiwimon to the court late that day, causing relatives who had come to give encouragement to wait from the morning. The police witnesses arrived at the designated time and court officials knew only that morning that there would be a plea change.
In the afternoon, after reading out the process relative to canceling the examination of evidence and requesting testimony from the defendant, the Court immediately delivered judgment. The Court read out the charges, skipping some for the expressed reason that it would be improper to read them out loud. Confession in hand, the Court pronounced the defendant guilty under Criminal Law, Article 112.
The Court then sentenced the defendant to eight years prison on each charge, for a total of 56 years reduced to 28 in light of the confession and its usefulness to the Court.
Along with the confession, the attorney had submitted a petition for a light, suspended or delayed sentence. The petition cited the dependence of her family, including her mother and two daughters, on the defendant alone, the fact that the defendant pursues an honest livelihood, had never previously committed a criminal offense and had never caused hardship or loss to anyone or to society. Documents with details on the family and evidence of good character were attached.
The Courts response to the petition was, “Defense has petitioned for a light, delayed or suspended sentence. Defendant has committed a crime against the institution of the monarchy. The monarchy is respected and worshiped by the people and defendant’s actions therefore seriously offend the sensibilities of the people. The sentence we have handed down is already light given the gravity of the offense. Petition denied.”
A young mother of 29 was thus sentenced to 28 years in prison. Her sobs filled the military courtroom. It was 7 August 2015.
After the judgment
As the case followed its course, Sasiwimon remained incarcerated and her mother tried to help from the outside, borrowing money to hire a lawyer and to raise bail. She says that she expended nearly 100,000 baht, borrowing from relatives, pawning jewelry and taking out a loan against the motorcycle.
From the time Sasiwimon was incarcerated, the mother has had to care for her two granddaughters on only her own income. After rent, utilities, loan payments and school expenses for the two girls there is very little left for food and other necessities. That doesn’t even include tuition for the two girls or prison expenses for Sasiwimon. Most of her relatives also live hand to mouth and lack resources: she has to fend for herself. Fortunately, her friends at work understand her situation.
The mother goes to work at 6:30 in the morning every day but Saturday. She takes the girls to school on the motorcycle early in the morning before going to work. She gets off at 3:30 and picks up the girls. Sasiwimon used to take the girls to and from school. She works Sundays and must leave the girls at home alone, talking with them occasionally by telephone.
On certain days, she leaves work before noon to visit Sasiwimon in prison.
When she learned of the sentence, the mother couldn’t believe something like this could happen to her family. She doesn’t understand how the punishment can be so harsh, even more than for killing someone. It’s like they don’t want her ever to get up again.
Through tears, she said, “I think about... I have a chronic illness... After 28 years, when my daughter gets out of prison, will she still have a mother?”
The story was first published on TLHR blog and translated into English by a Prachatai contributor.