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Thai Activist Editor Gets 11-Year Jail Term for ‘Insulting’ King

The packed courtroom in Bangkok, Thailand was in shock following the Criminal Court's verdict of 11 years imprisonment for labor rights activist and editor of Voice of Taksin, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk for lese majeste (royal insult) crimes. The shock was both regarding the guilty verdict, but even more so because of the severity of the sentence. While the maximum punishment for violating lese majeste laws is 15 years, previous cases involved shorter prison sentences. Somyot was not so lucky and was slapped with 5 years sentence for each crime, two counts in total, plus an additional year for the now cancelled 1-year suspended sentence he received in 2009 (for a different charge).

Somyot is escorted from the Criminal Court after being convicted to 11 years in prison. Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha, Copyright @Demotix (1/23/2013)

This is a real disappointment for Somyot, who was reportedly optimistic that he would be found innocent because he believed he did not commit any crime. Prachatai reportsthat Somyot's friend inside the Thai prison, where Somyot has been detained for more than 20 months, revealed that Somyot was hoping the Court would uphold ‘justice’ and ‘do the right thing.’ His lawyer will appeal against the sentence and seek bail.

Somyot's optimism stems from the nature of his crimes. Somyot was the editor of a political magazine, Voice of Taksin (banned in 2010), which published two articles in 2010 that was deemed to have violated lese majeste laws. He was formally charged in 2011, refused bail 12 times and finally convicted on January 23, 2013. The articles were published under pseudonyms and made no direct mention of the monarchy. However, the court believed that it was clear to whom the articles were referring and that as a senior editor, Somyot should have known full well about the ramification of their publication yet he did them any way.

“The court's procedure showed the articles which Mr Somyot published did not contain academic views of the monarchy. The articles were insulting in nature and caused damage to the King,” Judge Thawee said.

The verdict received numerous criticism from rights groups in Thailand, international news agencies and international rights groups. Inside Thailand, however, the news received a rather sober coverage from mainstream media.

Thai netizens’ reaction to Somyot's verdict was, as in previous cases, divided. Some argued that Somyot got what he deserved because he continued to be outspoken against Article 112

mitrapaap says in the Bangkok Post's web board:

He was out there on bail. He perfectly knew the risks of not keeping his mouth shut. One has to make his choice based on the current laws not matter whether you like them or not. You don't change laws by breaking them.

ploydonut added:

Thailand is good country, and bad people who insult our country, institutions, and do the bad crime should go to jail for long time.

Khon Thai Hua Jai Singh wrote on Manager's web board:

To those belonging to the anti-monarchy movement – if you think that Thailand is not a good place to live because we have the monarchy, then leave our beloved country, the country that reveres our monarch.

Or if you believe that you have been duped by convicted felon Mr….. Now it's time to change your mind. It's not too late for this society and your family to forgive you for what you've done. You must choose your path.

On the contrary, rights groups both in Thailand and abroad condemned the verdict and some argued that Somyot received such harsh punishment because he was also an activist who advocated for the reform of Article 112

10 years is too harsh of a punishment for a person who has a different opinion than others. Respecting different opinions and values is something our society needs to learn,” argues a Thai activist.

Luk Chaona Thai wrote on the Prachatalk web board:

The guilty verdict for Somyot is an imprisonment for free thinking. It's natural for human beings to have diverse views on issues and one must be able to live in a society where people have different views.

The biggest disappointment, although not surprising, is the null reaction from the Yingluck government. After all this was the pro-Thaksin magazine which has bee transformed into a Red Shirt (closely allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin, the brother of incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck) publication, Red Power. Acting UDD Chair, Thida Thavornseth, was at Somyot's trial and several Red Shirt groups have organized activities in support of the Free Somyot campaign. Yet, as one suspects, the ruling Pheu Thai party has no intention of intervening in this case. As Professor Duncan McCargo argues:

Yingluck Shinawatra is performing a delicate balancing act to preserve the political deal which keeps her in office – and doing so involves keeping the country’s conservative institutions, including the palace, the judiciary and the military onside.

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