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Australian, in Jail for Insulting Thai Monarchy, Receives Royal Pardon

An Australian man, sentenced in Thailand to three years in jail for insulting the Thai monarchy, has received a royal pardon and been sent back to Australia. The man's release followed active lobbying by the Australian government.

The 41-year-old Australian man, Harry Nicolaides, had been sentenced to three years of jail in January for insulting the Thai monarchy in a 2005 novel.

But a royal pardon, granted by King Bhumipol Adulyadej late Thursday, led to Nicolaides departing Thailand Friday to reunite with his family in Melbourne.

Nicolaides was arrested in late August and held in prison until his sentencing last month. In January, TV images showed a clearly distraught Nicolaides as he was brought to court in prison garb and shackled.

Nicolaides had described his time in prison as "torture" and "a bad dream." In the novel, which sold fewer than a dozen copies, he made references deemed to have defamed the Thai crown prince.

Under Thailand's laws individuals can face up to 15 years prison for insulting the monarchy. The law had been strengthened in 1976 during a period of military rule in Thailand. The 81-year-old Thai monarch, King Bhumipol Adulyadej, is deeply revered in Thailand.

The Australian government, politicians and the general public had been actively calling for Nicolaides' release.

Nicolaides, upon returning to Melbourne on Saturday, told reporters he was still "bewildered" and "dazed" from the experience and had a deeply emotional journey back to Australia. He said he had been skeptical over earlier reports a pardon had been recommended by prison authorities.

But human rights lawyer Somchai Homal-or says foreigners, who are charged under laws protecting the monarchy, generally are pardoned.

"The lese majeste law in Thailand, the penalty is high," said Somchai. "We have this law based on our tradition or customary law that every Thai person should respect our king. So this cannot be expected that the foreigner should respect or regard the monarchy the same as the Thai."

The Nicolaides case comes during a volatile period in Thai politics. The country still faces deep divisions between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the urban middle class who have accused Thaksin's supporters of seeking to undermine the monarchy.

Several lese majeste cases are pending. Recently a left wing academic charged with lese majeste violations fled to Britain fearing he would not receive a fair trial. Thai authorities have recently banned local distribution of the British newspaper, The Economist, over articles that discussed the lese majeste laws. The Thai government has also moved to shut down thousands of internet web sites deemed critical of the Thai monarchy.

King Bhumipol, who has reigned for over six decades, in a national day address, raised questions over the law saying he feared it would damage the monarchy's reputation.