Thailand’s criminal court sentenced a 61-year-old man to 20 years in prison Wednesday for sending text messages deemed offensive to the country’s queen.
The court found Amphon Tangnoppaku guilty on four counts under the country’s lese majeste and computer crime laws, sentencing him to five years imprisonment for each charge.
Lese majeste is the crime of insulting a monarch, and Thailand’s laws against it are the most severe in the world. Even repeating the details of an alleged offence is illegal.
The court said Mr. Amphon had sent offensive text messages in May 2010 to a personal secretary of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Mr. Amphon denied the charges, saying he was unfamiliar with the text message function on mobile phones and did not know the recipient of the message.
Lese majeste arrests and convictions in Thailand spike during times of instability, when the law is used by political rivals to harass opponents. That has been the case since a 2006 military coup ushered in years of political upheaval that has at times spiraled into violent street confrontations.
Amnesty International’s Benjamin Zawacki condemned Wednesday’s verdict, accusing the government of suppressing freedom of expression.
“Thailand has every right to have a (lese majeste) law, but its current form and usage place the country in contravention of its international legal obligations,” Mr. Zawacki told The Associated Press. “Repression remains the order of the day in Thailand on freedom of expression, and Amphon is a political prisoner.”
Mr. Amphon was arrested August 3, 2010, and detained at Bangkok Remand Prison without bail after being indicted by the public prosecutor for lese majeste.
Before his arrest, he had lived with his wife, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren in a rented room in Samut Prakan province, on the outskirts of Bangkok. He is retired and receives a 3,000-baht ($100) monthly allowance from his children. He has mouth cancer, and has required regular medical care since 2007.
Thailand’s Central Bureau of Investigation, without elaborating, said the messages were “inappropriate and considered insulting to the monarchy and have upset the recipients“.
The Bangkok Post:
In his defence he argued that he did not know of or have in his possession the SIM card that was used to send the messages.
Investigators insisted they had checked and found the serial number of the mobile phone SIM in question was the same as the Motorola phone Ampon had used for about two years.
The court ruled that Ampon failed to provide credible evidence to back up his defence.
Although Ampon claimed he had semt his phone for repair at the time, he could not locate or identify the repair shop when police took him to the shopping mall where he said the shop was located, the ruling said.
Furthermore, the phone was in his possession and police checks of its SIM card verified that the text messages originated from his phone, it added.
Somkiat testifies that during the incident time, he was working as a personal secretary for the former Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. On 19 May 2010 12:13 PM, a short message was received by his mobile phone number 0814255599. The vulgar message talks about the queen. The witness then took a picture of the phone screen to be used as an evidence, where the sender’s number appears +66813493615.
[Pol. Capt. Sakchai Kraiveeradechachai]Moreover, he was also the one who tracked the IMEI number and found out that the number was used with a phone with the IMEI number 358906000230110 and the SMS’es were sent from around Wat Dan Samrong. According to the telephone usage log, the messages were sent consinuously one after another then it stopped as if the sim card had been removed. Later, he reported this to the Pol.Lt.Col Teeradet then he (Teeradet) proceeded the case to True Corporation Company to keep track of the IMEI number to see if the IMEI number was used with other phone numbers. It is then found that the IMEI number is currently matched with the number ending with 4627 of True Corporation.Pol.Capt. Sakchai also explains that Pol.Lt.Col. Teeradet asked for cooperation from True Corporation Company once again to examine the whole usage of the number ending with 4627. According to the log he got, it can be understood that both the number -3615 and -4627 shared similar geographical area of operation. In addition, it is noted that the number -4627 was registered by the husband of Ms.Korawan, the defendant’s daughter.As following, the witness sought the phone numbers that number -4627 regularly contacted to and found that it was Ms.Piyamat’s and Ms.Korawan’s numbers that were the most often. Consequently, he invited Ms.Korawan for an interrogation and got confirmed that the number -4627 belonged to the defendant. The house of the defendant is located in the Soi Wat Dan Samrong 2 and that was where they visited and found the defendant.…At the arrest, the police officers have confiscated 5 items including a Motorola phone with the matching IMEI number. The defendant confessed that the phone belonged to him and that previously the phone was broken and he had it fixed at Imperial Samrong around May 2010…Pol.Lt.Col. Teeradet Thammasutee, age 38, testifies that he works at the Division 1 Crime Suppression Division as deputy super intendant. He has the duty to investigate and arrest the suspects. He also partook in the investigation of this lese-majeste case under the order of his commander.He was informed that there were some short messages sent from the number -3615 to the number -5599, which belonged to the secretary of the PM, Abhisit Vejjajiva during 9-22 May 2010. He together with Pol.Col. Siripong Timula and Pol.Capt.Sakchai Kraiveeradechachai have tracked the number and found that the user had already suspended the number. Therefore, the IMEI number was used and as it appeared, the IMEI number 358906000230110 was also used with the prepaid number -4627.Pol.Lt.Col. Teeradet also says that when using the IMEI number, only 14 digits are checked, while the last one has no significance. Then they sent a request to True Company to find out more details of the user of that number. They have discovered that there was a regular contact between that number and the number -5928, which was later found to belong to Ms.Korawan Chotipichitchai. Ms.Korawan was, hence, asked to cooperate in the crime investigation. So an appointment was made for the interrogation at the Division 1 on 23 June 2010. She said that the number -4627 belonged to the defendant. During the interrogation, personal information like the siblings of Ms.Korawan was revealed as well.Pol.Lt.Col. Teeradet testifies that the number -3615 and -4627 were used alternatively. When found that the resident of the defendant was in the same neighborhood as the location where the SMS’es were sent, they made an investigation report and submitted to the investigators at the Technology Crime Suppression Division so that they could request for an arrest warrant from the court and report to the commander to proceed with the arrest. A search and arrest warrant were issued on 3 August 2010. When the police officers reached the site, they found the defendant at home with his wife and children , which could be described as a small rental apartment. The arrest was done under the lese-majeste charge. In the arrest report, the defendant said that he had been a lone user of this white Motorola phone, the evident no.1, already for a long time.
BP: The defence’s argument was either someone else sent the messages or that the IMEI was spoofed – which can be done. Their problem though is that if it was someone else, the defence really needs to finger that person. If you own a gun, it is used in a crime, and then you are caught with the gun, just arguing that someone borrowed or used the gun won’t always work unless you can offer a theory as to who (problem is that if it was a family member, he may not have wanted to do so). The IMEI was spoofed theory is more possible although the problem is here that it was sent from the same neighbourhood (cell tower?). There was another case where the charges were dismissed earlier this year. Prachatai:
According to the court ruling, the investigators found that the internet service and telephone number were registered under the name of the defendant’s mother, and were used for her family’s business.
Although the defendant’s notebook computer contained information pertaining to the Prachatai website, no evidence was found to show that the messages had been posted through that computer, the court said.
The court went on to say that the defendant was arrested in a police raid, so she could not have deleted the information. The prosecutor merely checked the IP address with Prachatai and the internet service provider, and this was not sufficient evidence. There was no witness who could confirm that the defendant posted the messages. The defendant’s residence was a factory which had several computers with internet connections, and it was not known which one was used for the posting. Several employees could have used the computers.
The court cited the testimony of a defence witness, an IT expert from Australia, who said that any sophisticated computer user could fake an IP address. Therefore, it was possible that the IP address had been faked.
Unconvinced by the evidence, the court gave the defendant the benefit of the doubt, and dismissed the case.
BP: The problem for Ampon, as BP sees it, is that the spoofer was in the same neighbourhood although this may depend on how broad a neighborhood. For the computer case, the problem is that they don’t even know which computer was used and the only link for her was that she had information pertaining to Prachatai – had visited the Web site? had it been bookmarked. If he appeals, he probably will not get bail – he did not get bail after he was indicted – and so he is stuck in jail waiting for the appeal
His future either will rely with some amnesty law from Puea Thai (no idea whether lese majeste will be included and well this is just a proposal for now) or an individual pardon. Those usually granted individual pardons in the past are usually those who plead guilty, but Ampon didn’t. However, he has cancer, is 61, and is frail so once his case is finalized – if he appeals, it will delay things – then he may stand a chance of a pardon (see the below paragraph too for another possible reason why).
There are already multiple stories from AP, AFP, BBC etc. Amnesty International have already issued a statement stating he is a political prisoner and almost certainly a prisoner of conscience – BP understands Human Rights Watch will likely issue a statement as well – and well the severity of the sentence for insults sent by text message puts lese majeste back in the spotlight particularly given the personal circumstances of the person convicted. His plight will likely invoke more sympathy than for other cases. If there is going to be a poster child (for want of a better word) of the problems of lese majeste law and its application then this is the case. How will the government respond? Will this be one of the lese majeste cases reviewed? (or will the reviews only apply to those yet to proceed to prosecution?)
AFP on the rise of lese majeste cases:
Academics have noted a sharp increase in new royal insult cases in recent years and rights groups have expressed concern that the law was used to suppress freedom of expression under the last pro-establishment government.
Observers say the new government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who came to power in August, has yet to improve the situation.
The Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand, set up by the last government in 2010 to investigate political violence, said in September use of the law had been “directly related to political conflict” in recent history.
Paul Chambers, research director at Payap University in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, said the pattern of lese majeste imprisonments “looks like a rapid witch-hunt”.
In 2009, 478 lese-majeste cases went before the lower courts, up from 164 the previous year and 33 in 2005, according to statistics compiled by David Streckfuss, an academic at Khon Kaen University in northeast Thailand. Ampol was also sentenced under the Computer Crimes Act, which has recently been used in conjunction with the lese majeste law.
“Given that the law was intended to control crimes through the use of computer, a text message on a cell phone seems like a broad interpretation,” Streckfuss said by phone.
BP: See note at the end about the number of cases.*
*AP differs on the number of cases:
Statistics obtained by The Associated Press from the Office of the Attorney General show 36 lese majeste cases were sent for prosecution in 2010, compared to 18 in 2005 and just one in 2000.
BP: E-mailed David Streckfuss about this and he replied (and allowed BP to quote) that the Office of the Judiciary “confirmed that there were 478 charges that were sent to trial in the lower courts in 2010”, but speaking to a knowledgeable reader and they wondered whether the 478 figure referred to counts (i.e. for the Amphon case, it is one case, but there are 4 charges or counts of lese majeste) and that this may explain the discrepancy on the information from the two different government agencies. Anyone?