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Thailand: UN demands release of lèse-majesté detainee, raises specter of crimes against humanity

Paris, Bangkok, 25 January 2017: A United Nations (UN) body has demanded Thai authorities immediately and unconditionally release lèse-majesté detainee Pongsak Sriboonpeng, according to information received by FIDH.
In an opinion issued on 21 November 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) requested that Thailand immediately release Pongsak and award him compensation for the arbitrary detention to which he has been subjected. The UNWGAD expressed its concern over the pattern of arbitrary detentions involving lèse-majesté cases and recalled that “under certain circumstances, widespread or systematic imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty in violation of the rules of international law, may constitute crimes against humanity.”
“The skyrocketing number of arbitrary detentions of lèse-majesté defendants under Thailand’s military junta has severely damaged the country’s international image. If this trend continues, there is a real chance that the junta’s extreme campaign to protect the monarchy could amount to crimes against humanity,” said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.
FIDH and its member organization Union for Civil Liberty (UCL) today welcomed the UNWGAD’s opinion and called on the Thai government to immediately and unconditionally release all individuals detained or imprisoned under Article 112 of the Criminal Code (lèse-majesté). Article 112 prescribes prison sentences from three to 15 years for persons found guilty of defaming, insulting, or threatening the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent, or the Regent.
In its opinion, the UNWGAD declared that Pongsak’s detention is arbitrary because it contravenes Articles 10, 11, and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Articles 14 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a state party. The referenced provisions of the UDHR and ICCPR guarantee the fundamental right to liberty, the right to a fair trial, and the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
On 7 August 2015, Pongsak, a 49-year-old former tour guide, was sentenced to 60 years in prison by the Bangkok Military Court after being convicted on six counts of lèse-majesté - 10 years for each count - during a closed-door hearing. The court halved the sentence to 30 years in consideration of Pongsak’s guilty plea. Pongsak’s case is featured in the joint FIDH-UCL report 36 and counting - Lèse-majesté imprisonment under Thailand’s military junta.
The UNWGAD found that Pongsak was detained “solely for the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of opinion and expression.” The UNWGAD said that Pongsak’s comments on social media concerning members of the Thai royal family fell within the boundaries of opinion and expression protected by Article 19 of the UDHR and Article 19 of the ICCPR. The UNWGAD added that the Thai government failed to demonstrate that any of the restrictions on the right to freedom of expression permitted under Article 19(3) of the ICCPR applied to Pongsak’s case.
The UNWGAD also ruled that Pongsak’s right to a fair trial was not respected. The UN body found “several serious violations” of the international norms relating to the right to a fair trial. Firstly, the UNWGAD said the Bangkok Military Court did not provide a “public hearing,” as required by Article 14(1) of the ICCPR. Secondly, it underlined that the Bangkok Military Court did not meet the standard of a “competent, independent and impartial tribunal,” as set out in Article 14(1) of the ICCPR. Finally, it noted that the absence of the right of appeal violated Pongsak’s right to a review of his conviction and sentence by a higher tribunal under Article 14(5) of the ICCPR. The UNWGAD reiterated that the trial of civilians by military courts violates the ICCPR and customary international law, and that military courts can only be competent to try military personnel for military offenses.
On 12 September 2016, the ruling military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), issued NCPO Order 55/2016, which ended the practice of trying civilians in military courts. However, the order applies only to alleged offenses committed from 12 September 2016 and excludes past cases or ongoing trials in military courts. Since the 22 May 2014 coup d’état, military courts have sentenced 27 lèse-majesté defendants to lengthy prison terms. At least 31 lèse-majesté cases remain under the jurisdiction of military tribunals.
The UNWGAD called on the Thai government to bring Article 112 of the Criminal Code in conformity with Thailand’s commitments under international human rights law. The UNWGAD also said that it would welcome the opportunity to conduct a country visit “to constructively assist in this process.”
“The Thai government’s incoherent justifications for the abuse of Article 112 have been exposed by numerous UN human rights bodies. It is abundantly evident that the callous enforcement of Article 112 is incompatible with Thailand’s international human rights commitments. The junta must stop carrying out arbitrary arrests under Article 112, reform the law to conform to international standards, and release all lèse-majesté detainees,” said UCL Chairman Jaturong Boonyarattanasoontorn.
Pongsak is the fourth Thai lèse-majesté detainee whose deprivation of liberty has been declared arbitrary by the UNWGAD. On 30 August 2012, 19 November 2014, and 2 December 2015, the UNWGAD determined that the detentions of former magazine editor Somyot Phrueksakasemsuk and student activists Patiwat Saraiyaem (aka Bank) and Pornthip Munkong (aka Golf) respectively, were also arbitrary. The UNWGAD called on the Thai government to release the three and accord them compensation.
On 12 August 2016, Patiwat was released from the Bangkok Remand Prison as a result of a royal amnesty marking Queen Sirikit’s 84th birthday. On 27 August 2016, Pornthip was released from the Central Women’s Correctional Institution in Bangkok as part of the same amnesty. Somyot remains detained in the Bangkok Remand Prison, where he is serving a 10-year prison sentence under Article 112 of the Criminal Code.
Under the NCPO, the number of individuals detained or imprisoned under Article 112 of the Criminal Code has increased dramatically. Since the 22 May 2014 military coup, at least 90 individuals have been arrested under Article 112. Forty-three of them were sentenced to prison terms of up to 30 years. To date, at least 61 individuals are either imprisoned or detained awaiting trial on lèse-majesté charges. At the time of the 22 May 2014 coup, there were six individuals behind bars on lèse-majesté charges.

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