Thai police say a Thai-American man arrested for allegedly insulting the monarchy online four years ago, will be prosecuted as a Thai national although he lived in the United States at the time. Rights activists say the charges against the man across cyberspace and time damages Thailand's image and will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations Friday confirmed to VOA that Lerpong Wichaikhammat, 54, known in the United States as Joe Gordon, will be prosecuted as a Thai national despite also being an American citizen.
The DSI arrested Gordon in Thailand in late May and accused him of lese majeste, insulting the revered monarchy, an offense that is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Police say the charge was for, among other things, posting a link on a web log in 2007 to the book “The King Never Smiles,” which is banned in Thailand.
Initial reports said Gordon was living in the U.S. at the time, and that he moved to Thailand about a year ago, after 30 years away.
DSI Deputy Director General Yanaphon Youngyuen on Friday contradicted those reports, saying Gordon has lived in Thailand for three years, but refused to say if any alleged offenses were committed on Thai territory. He says it does not matter which country Gordon lived in.
He says the Internet comes into Thailand and can be seen because it is in cyberspace. He says cyberspace has no boundary or country but has an impact on Thailand’s national security. He says it is clearly defined in Thai law.
Yanaphon says Gordon confessed to his alleged crime on video tape but later recanted.
It is not clear why authorities arrested Gordon now, but rights activists say there has been increasing use of the lese majeste law to silence the opposition.
Benjamin Zawacki is Asia researcher for Amnesty International. He says the DSI is clearly reaching with the law and the arrest is another step in a clampdown that has chilled freedom of expression in Thailand.
"I mean if it can happen to someone with dual citizenship relating to an event that took place four years ago and which was perpetrated in the United States, no less, which is about as far from Thailand geographically as it gets, it does leave one wondering what could possibly be next and what speech is protected," he said.
Zawacki says if Gordon is convicted and imprisoned, he would be considered a political prisoner.
The DSI’s Yanaphon says Gordon posted messages on an anti-government website, NorPorChor USA, which supported massive street protests in Bangkok last year. Nonetheless, he says the arrest was not political.
In March NorPorChor USA’s developer Thanthawut Taweewarodomkul was sentenced to 13 years in prison for lese majeste and computer crimes.
David Streckfuss is a scholar studying Thai political culture and has written about lese majeste. He says before a 2006 coup there were just a few cases brought to court each year, but from 2006 to 2009 there were almost 400.
"These kinds of cases pose a deep threat to Thailand's image, and its previous image, of being a place where there was relative immediate freedom," Streckfuss said.
The 2006 coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His opponents alleged he harbored anti-monarchy sentiments. He denies the charges.
Streckfuss says there has been at least one similar case to Gordon’s. He says a few years ago authorities told a Thai-American blogger his postings were offensive and he was warned not to return to Thailand or he would face arrest.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Bangkok says consular officers visit Gordon regularly and they are urging Thai authorities to respect freedom of expression.