A Thai woman, accused of insulting the monarchy, was sentenced Tuesday to 43 years and six months in jail – the harshest punishment ever handed out under the country’s strict lese majeste laws, a legal rights group said.
The former civil servant was found guilty on 29 counts of violating the country’s lese majeste law by the Bangkok Criminal Court for posting audio clips on social media with comments deemed critical of the monarchy, the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said.
The verdict, which was swiftly condemned by rights groups, comes as Thailand ramps up its use of the controversial legislation against democracy protesters, whose demands include reforms to the ultra-powerful monarchy.
“Today’s court verdict is shocking and sends a spine-chilling signal that not only criticisms of the monarchy won’t be tolerated, but they will also be severely punished,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for the group Human Rights Watch.
Violating Thailand’s lese majeste law – known widely as Article 112 – is punishable by three to 15 years’ imprisonment per count.
The law is controversial not only because it has been used to punish things as simple as liking a post on Facebook but also because anyone can lodge a complaint that can tie the person accused in legal proceedings for years.
During Thailand’s last 15 years of political unrest, the law has frequently been used as a political weapon as well as in personal vendettas. Actual public criticism of the monarchy, however, had until recently been extremely rare.
But starting on November last year, Thai authorities have arrested about 50 people and charged them under the lese majeste law for advocating democratic reforms while also calling for the reform of the monarchy, which has long been regarded as an almost sacred institution.
Sunai said Tuesday’s sentence was likely meant to send a message.
“It can be seen that Thai authorities are using lese majeste prosecution as their last resort measure in response to the youth-led democracy uprising that seeks to curb the king’s powers and keep him within the bound of constitutional rule. Thailand’s political tensions will now go from bad to worse,” he said.
After King Maha Vajralongkorn took the throne in 2016 following his father’s death, he informed the government that he did not wish to see the lese majeste law used.
But as the protests grew last year, and the criticism of the monarchy got harsher, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha warned a line had been crossed and the law would be used.
The protest movement has lost steam since the arrests and new restrictions on public gatherings that followed a surge in coronavirus cases.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights identified the woman sentenced Tuesday only by her first name Anchan and said she was in her mid-sixties. The court initially announced her sentence as 87 years, but reduced it by half because she pleaded guilty to the offenses.
“I thought it was nothing. There were so many people who shared this content and listened to it. The guy (who made the content) had done it for so many years,” Anchan said. “So I didn’t really think this through and was too confident and not being careful enough to realise at the time that it wasn’t appropriate.”
She said she had worked as a civil servant for 40 years and was arrested one year before retirement, and with a conviction would lose her pension. (Source: CNA)