A court in Thailand sentenced a U.S. citizen to two and a half years in prison Thursday for defaming the country’s royal family by translating excerpts of a locally banned biography of the king and posting them online.
The verdict is the latest so-called lese majeste punishment handed down in the Southeast Asian kingdom, which has come under increasing pressure at home and abroad to reform harsh legislation that critics say is an affront to freedom of expression.
The 55-year-old Thai-born American, Joe Gordon, stood calmly with his ankles shackled in an orange prison uniform as the sentence was read out at a Bangkok criminal court.
Judge Tawan Rodcharoen said the punishment, initially set at five years, was reduced because Gordon pleaded guilty in October.
The U.S. Embassy’s consul general, Elizabeth Pratt, told reporters in Bangkok after the ruling that Washington considered Gordon’s punishment “severe because he has been sentenced for his right to freedom of expression.”
AP in another article:
“We are troubled by the outcome of this case,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington, describing freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. “We have conveyed our views about the case to the Thai authorities.”
Asked if he would stay in Thailand after serving his time, Gordon said: “I would like to stay and see some positive Thailand. I want to see the real, amazing Thailand, not the messy Thailand.”
Thai-born Gordon, who has lived in the US for nearly 30 years, stressed during the trial his status as a US citizen and the fact that the acts in question occurred in the United States. Minutes after the verdict was handed down, he said he believed there is no freedom of expression in Thailand regarding issues relating to the monarchy.
“It’s apparent that there’re still limits on freedom of expression,” said a disappointed-looking Gordon. He denied having any association with either the red- or the yellow-shirt movement, or being in contact with fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the 2006 coup and convicted on an abuse-of-power charge in 2008.
New York Times on why he pleaded guilty and will not appeal:
“You have to choose between the rule of law or freedom,” Mr. Arnon said in an interview after the verdict was handed down. “Because if he had wanted to continue fighting the case, he would have been in jail for at least another year without bail.”
Wearing an orange prison uniform and shackled with leg irons, he hesitated on Thursday when answering reporters’ questions. “In Thailand, they put people in prison even if they don’t have proof,” he said. “I am not going to fight. I don’t believe” — he stopped himself.
A prison official sitting next to Mr. Gordon whispered to him in Thai.
“Don’t say anything else about this,” said the prison official, Wiroj Nuyom. “It might affect your royal pardon. And you might be in trouble.”
BP: Indeed, be good and we will let you….
But the latest sentence is the first time that someone has been jailed for a lèse-majesté offence committed outside Thailand. Noting this, Benjamin Zawacki, an Amnesty International representative in Thailand, said today’s jailing of Gordon shows “the long arm of the lèse-majesté law.”
After being sentenced, he told the Bangkok court: “I’m not Thai, I’m American. I was just born in Thailand. I hold an American passport. In Thailand there are many laws that don’t allow you to express opinions, but we don’t have that in America.”
His lawyer said he would not appeal against the sentence, but would ask for a royal pardon.
Rights activists and academics say prosecutions of alleged lèse-majesté have soared since a 2006 coup and that the law is abused for political purposes.
The military claimed one reason for ousting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was disloyalty to the monarchy, which he denies.
Observers assumed the election this year of his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as prime minister would lead to a roll-back of prosecutions.
But her government has gone out of its way to show it supports the law, even establishing a “war room” of cyber police to search out online offenders like Joe Gordon.
I think that the increase of cases is like a snowball effect,” said Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“Gordon’s conviction and incarceration represent another repugnant example of an ultra-zealous, arch-royalist inquisition against any appearances of dissent,” said Paul Chambers, research director at a global studies institute of Chiang Mai’s Payap University. “The fact that he possessed foreign citizenship further demonstrates how far the Thai government is willing to [go to] enforce this decree.”
“Many Thais try to protect him, try to defend him, but in actual fact, the consequence is we ourselves are doing a lot of damage to the monarchy, or even the king himself,” former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun told reporters on Nov. 29 during the launch of a different book about the king’s life. “The harshness of penalties should be reviewed.”
Who will be next?