The court room was packed: 200 people filled the largest room the Criminal Court in Bangkok has to offer – journalists, observers from many Western embassies and other interested parties, all eagerly waiting for the session to begin. The general chatter of the crowd was interrupted by an all too familiar sound from the back of the room: metal being dragged on the ground, the sound of the shackles the defendant was wearing as he walked barefoot into the courtroom.
Some people immediately approached him for his opinion. He smiled and said: “What is important is liberty. Without liberty we ought not to live any longer because our human dignity has been degraded.”
Others went to wish him good luck. One of them was Thida Tavornseth, chairwoman of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the red shirt umbrella organization. But there were, like at the previous hearings of this case, very few red shirt supporters even though this is a lèse majesté case.
The accused is Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a veteran labor activist charged with lèse majesté for publishing two articles deemed insulting to the monarchy in the political magazine ‘Voice of Taksin’ (sic). He was the editor of the now-defunct publication and not the author of the articles, who has been by now revealed as Jakrapob Penkair, a government spokesperson under the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra and later a red shirt leader who fled the country after the violent clashes of 2009. He wrote the articles under a pseudonym.
The judges were late: 90 minutes after the scheduled time of 9.30am the session began and they swiftly began reading their verdict by reciting the two articles from early 2010 that were deemed offensive to the monarchy. To most people these passages were new, since in most lèse majesté cases the content of the alleged crime are not publicly disclosed outside the courtroom until the verdict.
While the King or the monarchy were never directly referred to in the articles, the court ruled that there could be only one solid interpretation, and that the articles were insulting to the monarchy. Neither did the judges accept the defense lawyer’s argument that Somyot should have been protected under the 2007 Printing Act, which doesn’t hold editors responsible for the content of others. Last October, Somyot’s petition was rejected by the Constitutional Court, as it upheld the repressive lèse majesté law and did not see a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed free speech.
After 50 minutes, the verdict was in: Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was found guilty of lèse majesté. The court sentenced him to 10 years in prison – 5 years for each article – also adding the cancellation of a suspended one-year jail sentence for defamation back in 2009. Having already spent nearly 21 months in detention since his arrest in April 2011 (five days after he collected signatures for a petition to amend the lèse majesté law) and having been rejected bail 12 times, Somyot will be imprisoned for another 11 years. It was a harsher term than most people expected, especially for a crime he didn’t commit directly himself.
There was shock, disbelief and anger among the group gathered in the courtroom. Somyot himself remained calm and collected. A young man said to him “We will keep on fighting!” Outside the courtroom, his supporters broke down in tears and lamented the unjust verdict. His lawyer announced right away that he will appeal the verdict, rejecting the ‘normal’ route of hoping for a royal pardon – a route that will usually result in a significant reduction of time spent in jail.
The international reports came in quickly: BBC, Reuters, Associated Press, New York Times, Al Jazeera, the German media outlets tagesschau.de and die taz – as did the international reactions. The European Union said Thailand’s freedom of expression and press freedom was “undermined” by the decision. Human Rights Watch states that Thai courts see themselves now as the “chief protector of the monarchy at the expense of free expression rights”, while the US-based Freedom House said the charges send “a chilling atmosphere of fear and self-censorship that severely undermines Thailand’s self-professed commitment to democracy.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay was quoted saying “the conviction and extremely harsh sentencing of Somyot sends the wrong signals on freedom of expression in Thailand. The court’s decision is the latest indication of a disturbing trend in which lese majeste charges are used for political purposes.”
At the time of writing, there were no reactions from national organizations like the National Human Rights Commission or the Thai Journalists’ Association, as they haven’t made any statements during the entire length of Somyot’s incarceration.
This is indeed a worrying verdict for free speech and the press in Thailand, which is progressively going backwards. Not only is it possible to be charged based on an ambiguously worded law; not only can anybody file a lèse majesté complaint against anybody else; not only are prosecutors determined to prove the intention of the accused (despite the lack of evidence in some cases); but now it is also possible to be held liable for other people’s content. This is especially true with online content thanks to an equally terrible Computer Crimes Act, where a culture of denunciation is state-sponsored and self-censorship is the norm.
Changes to lèse majesté are unlikely to happen anytime soon, as a reasonable debate about reform is difficult in a climate where some groups feel the need to compete with public displays of loyalty to the monarchy, and the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is unwilling to even touch the law, despite potentially upsetting their own voter base.
At the end of the trial, the sound of shackles dragging across the floor faded as Somyot was brought out of the court room and back to prison.
Photo courtesy of Lillian Suwarnrumpha.
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and is also reports for international news media such as Channel NewsAsia. You can follow him on Twitter @Saksith.