News / Asia

Thai Court Jails American for Insulting Thai Monarchy

Thai-born American Joe Gordon gestures as he answers a reporter's question upon his arrival at a criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, December 8, 2011.
Thai-born American Joe Gordon gestures as he answers a reporter's question upon his arrival at a criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, December 8, 2011.

A court in Thailand has for the first time jailed an American citizen for insulting the Thai monarchy in blog postings made from the United States.  U.S. authorities have called the two-and-a-half-year prison sentence "severe" and expressed concern about a string of recent prosecutions involving freedom of expression.  

Thailand’s criminal court Thursday found American citizen Joe Gordon guilty of insulting the Thai monarchy, a serious offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.  

The court sentenced him to five years in prison, reduced to two years and six months because he changed his plea to guilty in hopes of leniency.

Gordon was arrested in May for allegedly translating parts of a locally-banned book about the Thai monarch and posting them online.

Although he was born in Thailand and also goes by the Thai name Lerpong Wichaikhammat, Gordon became a naturalized U.S. citizen and lived there for decades.

Lèse-majesté

The alleged offense, known as "lèse-majesté," occurred two years ago when the car salesman was living in the United States.

Elizabeth Pratt, the Consul General at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, said Thursday the sentence against Gordon was severe because it involved freedom of expression.  She said that, to her knowledge, it is the first time an American citizen was jailed for insulting the Thai monarchy.  

"Well, we are troubled by the recent prosecutions and court decisions that are not consistent with international standards of freedom of expression," she said.

Last month a 61-year-old grandfather was given 20 years for sending text messages deemed insulting to the Thai queen.

In March an anti-government website developer was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Thailand’s laws against lèse-majesté, are the strictest in the world and make it illegal to say or publish anything that defames the revered King Bhumiphol Adulyadej, the queen, or crown prince.

Harsh punishment

Those found guilty are punished with three to 15 years in prison for each offense.

Anyone can raise charges and the police are obliged to investigate.

Fear of being accused of disloyalty also means a high conviction rate and harsh sentences.

Gordon’s lawyer, Arnon Nampa, said the sentence was lower than in other cases.  However, he says the law used to prosecute royal insults, article 112, needs to change.

He says the book about the Thai king was published by Yale University Press and his client only confessed to translating it. The content of the book, he says, is only about the monarchy and politics. If you ask him if the sentence is fair, he says, in his opinion Article 112 conflicts with freedom of expression.

Political purposes?

Rights activists and academics say prosecutions of alleged lèse-majesté have soared since a 2006 coup and that the law is abused for political purposes.

The military claimed one reason for ousting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was disloyalty to the monarchy, which he denies.

Observers assumed the election this year of his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as prime minister would lead to a roll-back of prosecutions.

But her government has gone out of its way to show it supports the law, even establishing a “war room” of cyber police to search out online offenders like Joe Gordon.

Lawyer Arnon says he will work with the U.S. Embassy to seek a royal pardon for Gordon.  The 84-year-old Thai King usually dismisses sentences against foreigners but Arnon says the process can take as long as six months.

Increased overseas cases

The case against Gordon was an example of Thai authorities expanding prosecutions to offenses committed overseas.  In the last year, they also appear to be broadening interpretation of lèse-majesté.

They brought charges against a website operator for not removing postings by bloggers quickly enough.

A Thai academic was charged for comments allegedly made about the king’s youngest daughter, who is not covered by the law.

Authorities have also threatened legal action against users of Facebook who click “like” or “share” on any pages or comments deemed offensive.

King Bhumiphol Adulyadej Thursday pardoned and reduced sentences for thousands of prisoners as part of a general amnesty given every year for his birthday.

Thai media report most were jailed for lesser crimes such as drug-related offenses though two were convicted murderers who dismembers their victims.

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