[Column] Monitoring Somyot's Trial - Freedom of Expression in Thailand
- Int. Solidarity
- 2013.02.13 (15:08:08)
Monitoring Somyot's Trial - Freedom of Expression in Thailand
By Thai Human Rights Defender
(* For safety reason, the article is published anonymously)
On Wednesday 23 January, the judges of the Thai Criminal Court found veteran labour rights activist and human rights defender Somyot Pruksakasemsuk guilty of insulting the monarchy, otherwise known as lèse majesté. Somyot was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment for publishing two articles in 2010 deemed defamatory to Thailand’s monarchy and received an additional year for a previous suspended sentence on a separate defamation case in 2009. Somyot was arrested in April 2011 and has spent 21 months in pretrial detention. His arrest came five days after launching a petition campaign to collect 10,000 signatures required for a parliamentary review of article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, otherwise known as the lèse majesté law. His family and lawyer have attempted to have him released from pretrial detention, but all their requests for his temporary release on bail have consistently been denied.
The day of the verdict, the largest court room on the Thai Criminal Court was filled with two hundred people, anxiously waiting for the session to begin: Thai and international journalists, observers from embassies, close friends, some UDD - the red shirt umbrella organisation- supporters and other interested parties. Also in the courtroom were people who have been affected by the lèse majesté: online newspaper Prachatai director Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who was found guilty of lèse majesté under the Computer Crime Act. She received a two-year suspended sentence for not taking down fast enough lèse majesté comments on Prachatai’s online forum. Ekkachai, a DVD seller, who is accused of selling DVDs with content offensive to the monarchy and charged with lèse majesté, was also present. He is among the very few who has been granted bail. Rosmalin Tangnoppakul, wife of lèse majesté prisoner Amphon Tangnoppakul, who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for allegedly sending four defamatory SMS, was also in the courtroom, showing her support. Amphon, affectionately named Akong or grandfather among Thais, died while in prison due to an undiagnosed cancer and lack of treatment. His death in custody sent a shock through Thai society and the international community and spurred the debate about lèse majesté in the country.
Around 9.30am, Somyot was led into the courtroom, his ankles in shackles, as has been the case in all previous hearings. Some of his supporters went up to him to share their words of encouragement. He was able to speak briefly with his wife Sukanya and son Panitan. Both have been very active in campaigning for Somyot’s release. Sukanya was closely involved in setting up the Network of Family Members and People Affected by Article 112. Panitan went on a hunger strike for 112 hours in front of the Criminal Court in February 2012 to protest against the judges´ continuous refusal to release his father on bail.
The four judges had the courtroom waiting and arrived 90 minutes later than scheduled. They started reading of the verdict which lasted for an hour. Somyot, still shackled, had to stand up during the entire reading of the verdict although he has been suffering from gout. The panel of judges recited the two articles containing the alleged insults to the monarchy, published in February and March 2010 in the now-defunct magazine “Voice of Thaksin” of which Somyot was the editor. The two articles were not written by Somyot but by Jakrapob Penkair, the exiled former spokesman of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ironically, Jakrapob being the author of the two articles has never been charged with any crime for what he wrote. To most people, hearing the content of the two articles was new, since in most lèse majesté cases the content of the alleged crime is not publicly disclosed outside the courtroom until the verdict. While the King was never directly referred to in the articles, the court ruled that there could be only one solid interpretation, and that both articles were insulting to the monarchy. Somyot's lawyer argued that Thailand's Printing Act relieved the editor of liability for such content, and instead put the responsibility on the writer. However, the judges did not accept this argument arguing that this does not absolve Somyot of any wrong doing under the Criminal Code. This reasoning by the judges sets a dangerous precedent, one that makes it possible for people to be convicted for implied lèse majesté content which does not directly mention the king or monarchy. Equally worrying is that the judges ruled that it is also possible to be held liable for other people’s content.
As the verdict was being read out, the judges concluded that Somyot was guilty of lèse majesté. They sentenced him to 11 years imprisonment, in addition to the 21 months he had already spent in pretrial detention. The observers in the courtroom reacted with disbelief and anger, shocked over the harsh and disproportionate sentence, especially for a crime Somyot had not committed himself. Somyot himself remained calm and serene. Outside the courtroom, some of his supporters broke down in tears over the unjust verdict. His lawyer announced that he will appeal the verdict. Somyot has always maintained his innocence and wants to fight his case, rejecting the ‘normal’ route of hoping for a royal pardon which will usually result in a significant reduction of jail time.
International condemnation of the verdict came in the afternoon. The European Union said Thailand’s freedom of expression and press freedom was “undermined” by the verdict, and it also affected “Thailand’s image as a free and democratic society”. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay was quoted as 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 lèse majesté charges are used for political purposes.” In stark contrast, the Thai Journalists’ Association took a different view, saying the court’s ruling in Somyos’s case should not be linked with the issue of freedom of expression. The president of the Association said the Constitution ensures Thai people’s freedom of expression, but not without limit or exception. “Freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to accuse or criticise anybody. He added that “According to Thai law, the monarchy is an institution above politics. Whether the penalties are too harsh or whether the legal processes are suitable is another issue.”
Changes to lèse majesté are unlikely to happen anytime soon. This law is considered to be the most draconian of its kind in the world. Academics and activists have noted a sharp increase of lèse majesté cases in recent years, particularly after the military coup in September 2006 that ousted then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They argue that this law is increasingly being used as a political weapon to create a climate of fear and to use arbitrary charges to silence oppositional voices or differing opinions and to criminalize and restrict freedom of expression and press freedom in Thailand.
It must be made clear to everyone that Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and other lèse majesté prisoners are not criminals, murderers, nor thieves. In fact, Somyot is well known as a man who has spent his whole life supporting workers' rights and helping to establish democratic trade unionism in Thailand. He is also an outspoken critic who has denounced military coups and political injustice. Fellow rights activists hoped at the outset of the hearing that Somyot would be released that day as he is needed in the battle the rights movement finds itself in, opposing violations and abuses. Faced with this unjust verdict, many have seemed to lose hope in the judiciary, but as is Somyot, they are more determined than ever to fight the injustice and the restraints on freedom of expression in Thailand.