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Rights groups decry Thai govt's 'absurd' use of lese majeste law

Report notes 124 Thais were charged with royal defamation in less than a year

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: October 07, 2021 04:33 AM GMT

Updated: October 07, 2021 04:43 AM GMT

Rights groups decry Thai govt's 'absurd' use of lese majeste law

Pro-democracy activist Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak holds a flag during an anti-government march as protesters commemorate the anniversary of the 1932 Siamese Revolution in Bangkok on June 24. (Photo: AFP)

Prominent rights activists have warned that many Thai pro-democracy activists could be sentenced to as many as 300 years in prison for royal defamation, a serious crime in the Southeast Asian nation.

In a newly released report by the International Federation for Human Rights, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights and Internet Law Reform Dialogue explain that in less than a year, between Nov. 24 last year and this Aug. 31, a total of 124 Thais, including at least eight children, were charged with violating Article 112 of the Criminal Code, also known as the lese majeste law.

The law makes it illegal to criticize the country’s king and queen, although usually it is more broadly applied to include all members of the royal family and even dead royals.

Article 112 prescribes a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for each count of royal defamation, and many leaders of a youth-led pro-democracy movement, whose members have been calling for sweeping political reforms, have been charged with numerous counts of royal defamation over various statements they made during street rallies or online or both.

If found guilty on all counts and given the maximum sentence for each, several university students turned activists could be sentenced to hundreds of years, the rights groups note in their report.

For instance, Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, a 23-year-old student activist, has been charged with 20 cases of lese majeste, which means he could potentially be sentenced to a total of 300 years in prison.

Thai authorities continued to widely interpret Article 112 and stretched the letter of the law to absurdity

However, such charges are politically motivated as local authorities have “systematically targeted pro-democracy protest leaders and participants in connection with their participation in the demonstrations,” according to the rights groups.

“In November 2020, after a pause of about two years, prosecutions and arrests under the notorious Article 112 of the Criminal Code resumed in Thailand in response to the peaceful pro-democracy protests that swept the country for most of that year,” they explain.

“Nearly half of the lese majeste charges brought against pro-democracy activists, protesters and other individuals were related to forms of online expression. These cases stemmed from complaints made by members of royalist groups, cyber vigilantes and other internet users,” the groups write.

“Thai authorities continued to widely interpret Article 112 and stretched the letter of the law to absurdity. Some of the outlandish legal actions taken by authorities under Article 112 targeted individuals who criticized the government’s Covid-19 vaccine management, wore crop tops [thereby allegedly mocking a sartorial choice of the current king] or insulted the previous monarch,” they add.

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Student activists have been vocal in calling for the abolition of Article 112, arguing that it was an unjust law and an antiquated piece of legislation with no place in the modern world. Ironically, even such calls can themselves be deemed to be in violation of the law.

Of special concern to rights experts has been the fact that even several minors have been charged with royal defamation, which they say is a clear violation of their rights as children.

In February, after a 60-year-old former civil servant was sentenced to 43 years in prison for insulting the royal family, several experts affiliated with the United Nations’ Human Rights Council said they were “profoundly disturbed” by the rise in the number of lese majeste prosecutions and the harsh sentences handed down by Thai courts.

“The fact that some forms of expression may be considered offensive or shocking to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of such severe penalties,” the experts said in a statement.

“We call on the authorities to revise and repeal the lese majeste laws, to drop charges against all those who are currently facing criminal prosecution and release those who have been imprisoned under for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.”

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