By Lisa Gardner

A 61-year old Thai retiree and grandfather, whose twenty-year conviction under Thailand’s lese majeste law last year drew heavy criticism from civil rights groups, has been confirmed dead today.

The arrest of Uncle SMS

In this photo taken Aug. 3, 2010, Amphon Tangnoppakul, second right, is arrested by Thai police officers of defaming Thailand's royal family in mobile phone text messages at his house in Bangkok, Thailand. Amphon, who became known as "Uncle SMS" after he was convicted from the charge has died while serving his 20-year prison term, his lawyer said Tuesday, May 8, 2012. Pic: AP

Amphon Tangnoppakul, also known as ‘Akong’ or ‘Uncle SMS’ was convicted last November of sending four text messages deemed offensive to the monarchy to the secretary of the then-prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Amphon’s death marks the first death in custody of an individual convicted of the increasingly controversial lese majeste law. The man’s subsequent arrest, extensive pre-trial detention and lengthy prison term – five years for each text message, one of the most severe lese majeste convictions yet recorded – drew international attention to the law, which critics say is increasingly being used as a means of stifling free expression and political dissent.

Amphon is believed to have succumbed to mouth cancer, which he’d battled for a number of years.

The grandfather from Samut Prakan, on Bangkok’s outskirts, had long maintained his innocence. Siam Voices reviews some of the developments in this astonishing case.

“UNCLE SMS”: A TIMELINE

August 3, 2010: A group of some fifteen police officers raid Amphon’s house and place him under arrest.

August 3 – October 4, 2010: Amphon is detained for 63 days without charge.

January 18, 2011: Amphon is formally charged under violations of Article 112 and the Computer Crimes Act (CCA), legislation that prohibits the transmission of illegal (in this case, ‘royally insulting’ material). The Criminal Court refuses to grant bail, citing the ‘gravity’ of the allegation, while deeming him as a serious flight risk.

September 23, 27-30, 2011: Amphon’s case goes to trial. Amphon, maintaing his innocence throughout,  explains that he both does not know how to send SMS messages, nor does the cell number in question belong to him. He weeps throughout much of the court’s proceedings, repeating: “I love the King.”

November 23, 2011:  The court finds Amphon guilty on four counts of the lese-majeste law and the Computer Crime Act, sentencing him to a 20 year prison term.

November 24, 2011: The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) identifies Amphon as a political prisoner and calls on the Thai government to ensure his immediate release. The Committee express “grave concerns” that Amphon had yet been:

unable to access proper treatment during detention… Compounding the injustice of the sentence… The authorities have no qualms about denying necessary medical treatment and violating the rights of political prisoners.

The Committee reproduce a recent letter from Amphon’s daughter:

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…

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.

November 24, 2011: Esteemed scholar and outspoken anti-112 advocate Pavin Chachavalpongpun takes to Facebook to launch an online campaign in support of Akong’s release. The campaign immediately attracts hundreds of followers, Thai and foreign alike, who post photos of themselves which call on the government to “Free Akong”.

In an interview with Pravit Rojanaphruk, Pavin describes Amphon as “the ultimate victim” in a “game of political revenge,” finding “most atrocious… the length of the sentence. Four SMS’ (for) twenty years? Is this Thailand?”

November 30, 2011: The Santiprachatham Network, a group of well-known academics and social activists in and outside Thailand, call on the Thai judiciary “to better uphold the principles of justice, humanity, democracy and basic rights,” noting that the trial had “only generated widespread criticism about the evidence and reasoning” in a “flawed judicial system”.

December 9-10, 2011: T coincide with International Human Rights Day, activists gather in Bangkok and elsewhere to undertake a ‘Fearlessness Walk’ in support of Amphon and other lese-majeste prisoners. Among those present is the formidable social critical Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa, who notes that “the constitution is important to Thailand, but human rights are important for all people… Now in Thailand, there is no respect for either the constitution or human rights.”

December 15, 2011: Pavin Chachavalpongpun launches a ‘Free Akong’ book, based on the success of the online ‘Fearlessness’ campaign.

January 21, 2012: The Appeals Court dismisses Akong’s request for bail. While in court, Amphon denies“that he is a ‘hardcore’ supporter of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship as reportedly claimed by police, saying that he used to visit rallies of both yellow and red shirts and was not especially committed to one side over the other.”

February 19, 2012: Outside the Criminal Court, Amphon’s wife undertakes a 24-hour hunger strike to protest his incarceration.

February 22, 2012: The Appeals Court denies Amphon bail for a second time. In rejecting his request, the Court says that it considered that the charges against the defendant as severe enough to warrant his ongoing detention, and “has no reason to believe that the defendant will not flee”:

The illness which the defendant claims… does not appear to be life-threatening.  Given that government medical facilities are already available for the treatment of the defendant, [the Appeals Court] refuses temporary release for the defendant during the appeal.

Last week, Amphon withdraws his appeal. His lawyer will instead seek to lodge a request for a royal pardon.

May 8, 2012: Amphon’s lawyer announces news of Amphon’s death via Facebook. First media reports suggest that Amphon complained of stomach pains since last Friday: Associated Press note that “it is not immediately clear when (Amphon) died,” and that his wife “learned of the news early (today) during a visit to the Bangkok prison.”

Earlier today, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok – a United States whose own citizen was last year sentenced under the lese-majeste law – comment (rather obliquely) on news of the death, citing the political convictions of Martin Luther King Jnr:

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, executive director of Prachatai.com, whose own case under charges of the Computer Crimes Act has in recent months gained significant international attention, would honor Amphon:

 

While journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk of The Nation, who himself has reported at length on cases of lese majeste, wrote:

 

Speaking to Siam Voices this afternoon, activist-scholar Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who had spear-headed the campaign for Akong’s release, reiterated the broader implications of the lese majeste law. “It means that it is now time for Thai society to look more critically of how Article 112 has been employed as a weapon against political opponents, or indeed virtually against anyone. It tells us that there is something seriously wrong about the Thai judicial system, about how the monarchy has been perceived and protected by the hyper-royalists. Article 112 has to be reformed or abolished soon,” he noted. “If the monarchy is to survive.”

Lisa Gardner is a freelance journalist and writer. Follow her on Twitter @leesebkk