BP has already blogged on the death of Amphon Tangnoppakul/Uncle SMS, who is serving a 20-year sentence for sending four SMS messages deemed to be lese majeste (also see companion post at Siam Voices which has a chronology of the case).
A Thai man in his 60s who became known as “Uncle SMS” after he was convicted of defaming Thailand’s royal family in mobile phone text messages has died while serving his 20-year prison term, his lawyer said Tuesday.
The case of Amphon Tangnoppakul, a grandfather who had suffered from mouth cancer, drew attention to Thailand’s severe lese majeste laws last November when he received one of the heaviest-ever sentences for someone accused of insulting the monarchy.
Thai activist jailed 15 years
Amphon’s cause of death was not immediately known, but he had complained of stomach pains on Friday and was transferred to a correctional department hospital, his lawyer Anon Numpa said.
It was not immediately clear when he died, but Amphon’s wife learned the news early Tuesday during a visit to the Bangkok prison where he was being held, Anon said.
Amphon was arrested in August 2010 and accused of sending four text messages to a government official that were deemed offensive to the queen. He denied sending them, however, and said he didn’t even know how to use the SMS function on his telephone to send texts.
He wept during his court proceedings, saying, “I love the King.”
The sentence was believed to be the heaviest ever received in a lese majeste case because of additional penalties issued under a related law, the 2007 Computer Crimes Act.
Before his arrest, Amphon 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 was retired and suffered from cancer of the mouth.
“His wife called me this morning [Tuesday] and told me that he has passed away in prison,” Ampon’s lawyer Anon Numpa said, adding that his client had hoped for a royal pardon.
The cause of death was still being investigated, according to a doctor at the Corrections Department hospital where Ampon’s body was taken from the Bangkok Remand Prison.
“His medical record showed that he used to have mouth cancer, and currently his stomach was swollen, which is under investigation,” he said. “A witness said last night he was fine, but this morning he wasn’t moving and was already dead.”
Successive governments have ignored international calls to reform the lese-majeste laws, a highly sensitive issue in a country where 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is regarded as semi-divine.
The laws are increasingly questioned in Thailand itself, with some critics arguing the legislation is abused to discredit activists and politicians opposed to the royalist establishment.
Thomas Fuller in the New York Times:
Mr. Ampon, who is widely referred to as “Uncle SMS,” was repeatedly denied bail despite a history of cancer. The court ruled last year that Mr. Ampon was a flight risk and that his condition “did not appear to be fatal.” His lawyer, Anon Numpa, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that prison may have worsened his condition.
Mr. Ampon complained of stomach pains last week and was sent to a prison hospital, where he died. An autopsy was being performed Tuesday, Mr. Anon said. “His condition would have been better had he been on the outside,” he said.
In a handwritten note to his lawyer from prison last month, Mr. Ampon said he was “often disheartened,” and missed his wife and grandchildren. “I’m trying to be patient,” he said. “I have high hopes that I will get freedom soon.”
Ampol Tangnoppakul died at 9 a.m. at the government-run Klang Hospital, Suchart Wong-ananchai, director-general of the Department of Corrections, told reporters in Bangkok. In November a court sentenced him to 20 years in prison for sending text messages that threatened and defamed Queen Sirikit, 79.
“Grandfather died,” Arnon Numpa, Ampol’s lawyer, wrote on his Facebook page. “Please accompany him at the prison.”
Ampol’s sentence prompted the U.S., European Union and United Nations to issue statements calling on Thailand to respect freedom of speech. The Southeast Asian country has seen a surge in the number of cases alleging insults against the royal family in recent years, coinciding with political violence since a 2006 coup.
He was convicted in November last year of sending four messages to an official working for then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
He denied the claims and said he did not know how to send a text.
The conviction – the heaviest for a lese majeste case – sparked outrage among rights groups, with Amnesty International describing Ampon as a political prisoner and the European Union expressing ”deep concern”.
Sunai of Human Rights Watch has some audio comments on ABC.
BP: First, prison conditions in Thai jails are not good. For someone in their 60s who has/had cancer in the crowded conditions of a Thai prison cell (e.g. 35 prisoners in a 40 sqm cell) you are more susceptible to picking up other illnesses and combined with the poor quality of prison food, a person’s health can easily deteriorate in a Thai jail. Prachatai has more details on that:
According to the lawyer, Ampon has been suffering from stomachache for months, but he was first transferred to hospital around noon last Friday and was admitted around 3.40 pm. He did not immediately receive diagnosis as the hospital lab was closed on weekend. His blood was taken for testing on Monday, but before the results were made known, he passed away around 9.10 am today.
“If Ampon was granted bail and could go see doctor regularly, such incident might not have happened” said the lawyer. Prior to this, Ampon has just had operation for oral cancer.
BP: Am unsure of the exact prognosis of his cancer and we don’t know exactly what caused his death, but his lawyer is very likely correct when he says his condition would have been better on the outside. And the rationale for no bail again was? That the hospital lab was closed on the weekend shows you that they don’t have the facilities to treat people properly. Yes, public healthcare in Thailand is far from perfect, but it is even worse in the Thai prison system (despite the Klong Prem facility having a hospital).
Second, a general theme mentioned in the articles is of lese majeste reform. Veera in the Bangkok Post:
Regrettably, the calls for the amendment, or even lifting, of the lese majeste law, fell on the deaf ears of the Pheu Thai Party-led government, which seems set on reconciling with the amataya clique in its attempt to push through its reconciliation plan and pave the way for the return home of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The party does not want to offend the military, which has stated clearly it does not want the lese majeste law to be amended. Hence, the law remains intact even if the constitution is to be rewritten.
After his conviction, Ah Kong appealed against the verdict but he later withdrew the appeal and instead sought royal clemency. Unfortunately, he died before there was an answer to his plea.
Given the extensive responses to Ah Kong’s death in the Twitter social media, and in foreign news reports, it seems likely that his sudden demise while serving his jail term will re-ignite the calls for changes to the lese majeste law by the free expression and human rights advocacy groups.
It is doubtful that the government, or the Pheu Thai Party, will change its stand on the issue.
BP: BP is also doubtful. It is not so much about offending the military; it is about staying in power. The previous pro-Thaksin government in 2008 was paralyzed by street protests which were indirectly (and directly at times) by the establishment. No change of the law and no protests. Hence, it becomes a fairly easily political calculation. If the establishment agreed on changes, BP thinks they would happen relatively, but there are no signs on that happening. It is not as though the opposition are pushing for reform either.
Nevertheless, his death places the spotlight clearly on lese majeste law and what the government will do. The government can’t just release those convicted from jail tomorrow, but it can provide them with better treatment – as of last report they hadn’t been moved to the new facility* – and make more progress on limiting the number of prosecutions – still no word on what the committee is doing. Economic concerns, particularly over the cost of living, is the most pressing issue facing the government, but can’t ignore other issues including lese majeste.
*On the need for the move, lese majeste prisoners are low on the totem pole. How low? This quote from Dr John Lerwitworapong, director of the Medical Correctional Institution, at the prison shows you their position in a prison:
Others separated from the general population are violent offenders who are forced to wear leg irons. “Paedophiles are generally tolerated in the prison community, but inmates are not so forgiving when it comes to offences against religion or His Majesty the King,” Dr John said.
BP: That is from 2007 and well Thai attitudes to lese majeste are changing, but many people are very much opposed to any reform and those who commit what is deemed lese majeste as sub-human traitors. Hence, lese majeste prisoners are still likely to attract unwanted attention.