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Thailand can do without lese majeste statute

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk’s release after years in prison affords a chance to reflect on deeply unfair abuses of the law

The release from prison on Monday of labour rights activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk should prompt the authorities to review the draconian lese majeste law, which was designed specifically to protect the monarchy but continues to be misused for political ends. Somyot, 55, was discharged from a Bangkok prison after serving six years on a lese majeste charge – the longest term ever served. He was arrested in 2010 when the country was deeply divided along political lines. The red shirts were protesting against the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva and the result was some of the bloodiest clashes in modern Thai history. The government in April 2010 included Somyot and his magazine, Voice of Thaksin, on a chart containing the names of individuals and groups it accused of being “anti-monarchy”. No credible evidence was offered to substantiate the allegation. About a month later Somyot was detained without charge in an Army camp for 19 days. On his release he changed the name of his magazine to Red Power, and in September that same year, the Abhisit government shut it down.
It was not and is not illegal to be aligned with the red shirt movement supporting former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his regimes’ policies. And it was unfair for Somyot to have been identified as anti-monarchy without evidence. Yet the misperception the government created among the public led to his arrest on April 30, 2011, as he was circulating a petition calling for Article 112 of the Penal Code – the lese majeste law – to be amended. Article 112 is quite straightforward. It says anyone who defames insults or threatens the King, Queen, heir-apparent or regent shall be imprisoned for three to 15 years. The authorities’ case against Somyot was that he had published in his magazine two articles by Jit Pollachan, a pseudonym used by an exiled politician. The law was applied beyond its intended scope and meaning. The two articles merely mentioned the roles of the monarchy. There was no inherent insult to the monarchy. In practice, even criticising the monarchy in good faith can be and is deemed lese majeste. The fact that anyone can file a complaint leading to prosecution enables people with political agendas to take advantage of the law for their own benefit rather than for the good of the monarchy. Thus, cases are often handled as though Thailand was still an absolute monarchy rather than a nation under the modern rule of law. People charged with lese majeste are routinely denied bail and held in pre-trial detention for months. Somyot was denied bail 16 times. As the editor of a periodical, Somyot should have been protected by the Printing Act and the Constitution’s safeguards covering freedom of expression. But the Constitutional Court ruled in October 2012 that lese majeste breaches represented threats to national security and thus overrode any such protection. Somyot was shown some mercy in the final verdict, in February last year, when the court reduced his sentence from 10 years to six because he hadn’t written the articles, and because he was advanced in age and had already served nearly six years. He served seven years in all due to an earlier conviction for defaming a senior military officer. Somyot’s case should give all citizens pause for thought. Political reform is badly needed, and this unfair practice in particular has to be rolled back. NTN – EP

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