BANGKOK— A court in Thailand has sentenced a magazine editor to 10 years in prison under controversial laws against insulting the revered monarchy. New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch says authorities appear to have targeted the editor for advocating reform of the law.
A Thai court Wednesday found editor Somyot Pruksakasemsuk guilty of publishing two articles deemed insulting to the monarchy.
Under the strict laws, known as Lese Majese, the head of the now defunct Voice of Taksin magazine was given five years in prison for each article.
Thailand's laws against defaming the monarchy are among the world's most severe and call for prison terms of up to 15 years per charge.
Activists condemned the harsh sentence as politically motivated.
Sunai Phasuk is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Thailand. He says authorities appeared to target the editor because he pushed for reform of the laws against insulting the monarchy. "Somyot was arrested only five days after he started his campaign to collect signatures from the public for the amendment of Lese Majeste law. But, the articles that led to his arrest, and the conviction today, were published way before that," Sunai explained.
No charges were brought against the writer of the articles. Human Rights Watch says he was a spokesman of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and now lives in Cambodia.
Thailand's publishing laws are supposed to protect editors from being held accountable for content written by other people.
But, Sunai says, the court ruled Wednesday that insults to the monarchy were a threat to national security and trumped all other laws.
"So, now there is a new standard in Thailand that for Lese Majeste offenses nothing can be used in the defense as constitutional guaranteed freedoms to shield and to assure protection of basic rights. So, this is a very worrying moment," stated Sunai. "The conviction of Somyot is a very worrying step that freedom of expression in Thailand is under very serious attack."
Sunai says the case indicates authorities are increasingly targeting media intermediaries to encourage self-censorship of public discussions on the monarchy. He says authorities shut down over 1,000 websites each month for alleged anti-monarchy content.
A Thai court in May found website operator Chiranuch Premchaiporn guilty of not removing offensive postings by bloggers quickly enough.
She was given a suspended sentence of eight months for violating the Computer Crimes Act, a law used to prosecute Lese Majeste on the Internet.
Somyot also received one year in prison Wednesday, in a separate case, for alleging a Thai general was behind the 2006 coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The magazine and Somyot were critics of the establishment and supporters of the former prime minister.
Thaksin Shinawatra was accused of disloyalty to the monarchy and now lives in exile to avoid jail for corruption charges.
Current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is his sister and her Pheu Thai party came to power amid hopes of reforming the controversial laws that were quickly dashed.
David Streckfuss is a Thailand-based academic and author who has written extensively on Lese Majeste. He says most of the recent prosecutions are not surprising as they were initiated during the previous government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, a staunch monarchist.
"What is surprising is, as you say, the Pheu Thai government came in promising to at least to look into the law and to have academics and legal experts look at it. Since that time, I think probably for what they perceive as their own political survival, they've retreated from doing anything with the law," said Streckfuss.
Nonetheless, Streckfuss says, there do appear to be significantly fewer new cases of Lese Majeste, so Thailand could, in the future, see less prosecutions and convictions.
Cases of Lese Majeste skyrocketed after the 2006 coup, attracting international condemnation for political abuse.
Streckfuss says they reached a peak of over 400 in 2010, ironically working against the monarchy by putting it under criticism and scrutiny.
Thai authorities say the laws are necessary to protect the monarchy.