Thai editor Somyot sentenced to 11 years in prison

New York, January 24, 2013–A Thai court sentenced news editor and political activist Somyot Prueksakakasemsuk to 11 years in prison on Wednesday for two articles the court ruled had insulted the Thai monarch, a criminal offense under the country’s strict lѐse majesté law. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the harsh sentencing and calls for the journalist’s immediate and unconditional release.

Somyot, editor of the now-defunct Voice of Taksin newsmagazine and a political activist with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship protest group, was first arrested in April 2011 at a Thai border checkpoint while attempting to cross into neighboring Cambodia. He was held in pre-trial detention for 20 months. The court denied 12 different bail requests while he was held, according to local press reports.

Somyot faced a possible 30 years in prison on two separate charges under the country’s lѐse majesté law, which prohibits insults to the royal family. The ruling handed him five-year jail terms for each of the two articles and cancelled the suspension of a previous one-year prison term he faced in an unrelated defamation case. Somyot’s lawyers said they would appeal the decision.

Somyot’s lawyers, who had also challenged the constitutionality of the lѐse majesté law, argued at the ruling that the journalist should not be held liable for the two articles, which were written under the penname “Jit Polachan” and published on Voice of Taksin in February and March 2010. In May, Somyot had told the court that the articles did not refer to the king, but instead to a broad aristocratic elite. Somyot had initially refused to divulge the name of the author of the articles, but during his court testimony identified the individual as Jakrapob Penkair, a former government spokesman now living in self-imposed exile in Cambodia.

“Somyot’s harsh sentencing represents the latest abuse of lѐse majesté laws to stifle freedom of expression in Thailand,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “His conviction underscores the pressing need to reform the law, both in content and application, and allow for a free and open debate about the country’s royal institution.”

Days before his initial arrest, Somyot had launched a petition campaign to pressure parliament into amending the lѐse majesté law, known as Article 112 in the Thai penal code. Under the law, any Thai individual may file lѐse majesté charges. Thai royal family members have never personally filed charges. Lѐse majesté charges have been abused for political purposes by both sides of Thailand’s protracted political conflict.

CPJ research shows that the number of lѐse majesté cases has surged since the ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup. Coup makers justified their move in part by claiming that Thaksin was disloyal to the monarchy, incendiary charges in Thailand’s political context. Authorities have since used lѐse majesté-related provisions in the 2007 Computer Crime Act to censor tens of thousands of Web pages and punish online journalists and editors.

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