THE Thai human rights lawyer feared missing after local security forces raided his Bangkok home appeared in court Wednesday where he was charged with 10 counts of royal defamation – the most number of charges for the crime ever brought against an individual in recent years.
If convicted, Prawet Prapanukul faces up to 150 years in prison, according to a rights group quoted by several media agencies.
“Prawet faces 10 counts of breaking Article 112, so that works out to up to 150 years in prison if he is found guilty,” Anon Nampha of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights was quoted telling Reuters.
The kingdom’s strict lèse-majesté law makes it a crime to defame, insult or even threaten the king, queen or the heir-apparent, as enshrined in Article 112. Anyone who contravenes the law could face imprisonment of up to 15 years.
According to Anon, on top of the 10 charges under Article 112, Prawet also faces three charges under Article 116.
Article 116 covers sedition and is yet another provision in the law the military junta government has been using increasingly since it claimed power in 2014. Those convicted under the section face a maximum seven years’ jail.
It was not immediately clear what Prawet might have written or said that led to his arrest and charges.
A spokesman for the military government said he was unable to comment on the case, Reuters reported.
Rights groups, however, railed against the charges.
“Imprisonment is never a proportionate penalty for the exercise of free expression, let alone the unthinkable possibility of 150 years,” Kingsley Abbott, from the International Commission of Jurists, was quoted telling the AFP.
International rights watchdog Human Rights Watch earlier this week demanded the military junta reveal the whereabouts of the 57-year-old lawyer, who reportedly went missing after his home was raided last Saturday.
The group’s Asia director Brad Adams asked if Prawet had become yet another victim of enforced disappearance, a common practice in Thailand under the junta.
Since seizing power, the junta has detained hundreds of politicians, activists, journalists and others accused of being involved in anti-junta protests and activities.
Some have been held incommunicado in unofficial places of detention, such as military camps.
According to Adams, in the case of Prawet, officers from the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, together with soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division and police from Bangkok’s Bang Khen Police Station, raided the lawyer’s house on the morning of April 29.
Prawet’s computers, hard drives, flash drives, mobile telephones, CDs containing political programs, and various political T-shirts were confiscated, an official receipt showed.
However, Adams said the authorities did not provide official notification of Prawet’s arrest or whether he was under state custody.
Prawet is a well-known human rights lawyer who provided legal assistance to members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) – also known as the “Red Shirts” – in cases related to the 2010 political confrontations.
He also served as legal counsel defending a critic of the monarchy, Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, who was convicted under Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws for insulting the monarchy.
The lawyers’ group said Prawet was charged along with five others, who also faced charges under the royal insult law.
Prawet is in pre-trial detention at a Bangkok remand prison after being held incommunicado at the 11th Army Circle base in Bangkok, a facility the military uses as a temporary prison.
HRW urged the military to observe due process.
“Even though lese majeste is a serious criminal offense in Thailand, authorities have no justification to breach due process and fair trial standards,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at HRW, told Reuters.
“The military regime has aggressively used lese majeste charges to clamp down on any speech and opinion they find objectionable.”
Lese majeste laws have an impact on what any news organisation, including Reuters, can report about issues relating to Thailand’s monarchy.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, ascended the throne in December following the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in October.
Thailand is observing a year of mourning for King Bhumibol who was seen as semi-divine by many people. His cremation will be held in October.
Political activity has largely ceased to mark the period of mourning. An election to restore democracy will be held next year, the government has said, though a date has not been set.
Additional reporting from Reuters