Thailand's most draconian law
The very moment the judges announced the verdict the audience in the packed court room was stunned. After that there were shock, and disgust, and some people even had tears in their eyes.
What happened during the morning hours on 23rd January 2013 at the Criminal Court in Bangkok? Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a prominent labour activist, human rights defender and editor in Thailand was sentenced to ten years in prison. Let's be very clear about one thing: This man is not a murderer, not a thief, he didn't do anything wrong at all. Instead, he is well known as a man who has spent his whole life supporting workers' rights and helping to establish democratic trade unionism in Thailand. He is also an outspoken critic who has denounced military coups and political injustice.
Foto: Holger Grafen, Somyot's wife Sukunya, right, second row, with supporters
On 23rd January Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was found guilty of violating Section 112 of the Criminal Code, also known as the lèse-majesté-law, by publishing two articles in 2010 that were deemed insulting to the royal family. Both articles were written by another author under a pseudonym. In addition Somyot was also handed a one-year-sentence for a separate defamation case. His wife, Sukunya Prueksakasemsuk, and his lawyer said they would appeal the verdict.
The 51-year-old activist has become one of the latest victims of Thailand's controversial lèse-majesté-law. This law is considered to be the most draconian of its kind in the world. Academics and activists have noted a sharp increase of lèse-majesté-cases in recent years, particularly after the military coup in September 2006 that ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Critics argue this law is increasingly being used as a political weapon to create a climate of fear and to use arbitrary charges to silence oppositional voices or differing opinions and to criminalize and restrict freedom of expression and press freedom in Thailand.
Foto: Holger Grafen/Somyot's son Panitan during his hunger strike in February 2012
Somyot Prueksakasemsuk had been arrested on 30th April 2011, just a couple of days after launching a petition campaign to collect 10.000 signatures required for a parliamentary review of the lèse-majesté-law. Bail requests by his family and lawyer were denied twelve times, and Somyot, married with two children, has remained in prison ever since. His son, Panitan, even went on a hunger strike for 112 hours in front of the Criminal Court in February 2012 to protest against the judges´ continuous refusal to release his father on bail. "I want them to understand that the point we want to make there is that my Dad deserves the right to bail", Panitan had told me back there in February last year.
Foto: Holger Grafen/Somyot Prueksakasemsuk in shackles
The draconian verdict handed down to Somyot caused an outcry among human rights organisations while the European Union and United Nations expressed „deep concern" about the ruling: „The conviction and extremely harsh sentencing of Somyot sends the wrong signals on freedom of expression in Thailand. The court´s decision is the latest indication of a disturbing trend in which lese-majeste-charges are used for political purposes", Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said.
Foto: Holger Grafen/Somyot after the verdict
And the EU delegation in Bangkok noted: „The verdict seriously undermines the right to freedom of expression and press freedom. At the same time it affects Thailand's image as a free and democratic society."
„The courts seem to have adopted the role of chief protector of the monarchy at the expense of free expression rights", said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). „The court´s ruling appears to be more about Somyot´s strong support for amending the lèse majesté-law than about any harm incurred by the monarchy." Human Rights Watch added „that Thai authorities used Somyot´s pretrial detention as a means to punish him for his views." According to HRW, Somyot has told the organisation that he was compelled to appear in shackles in hearings in four different provinces for the same alleged offense, even though all the witnesses resided in Bangkok.
The organisation Frontline Defenders said in a statement it „believes that this verdict and excessively harsh sentencing is solely motivated by Somyot Prueksakasemsuk's legitimate and peaceful work as a prominent labour and human rights defender in Thailand, and urges the Thai authorities to ensure its reversal."
Foto: Holger Grafen/Protest in front of the Criminal Court against Thai jurisdiction
„This is a regressive decision - Somyot has been found guilty simply for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and should be released immediately", said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International's Deputy Asia-Pacific Director. „We urge the authorities to release Somyot and all other prisoners of conscience without conditions."
Last but not least there was something quite interesting to observe at the court as well: Indeed, several of Somyot's supporters have shown up, bravely raising their voices against the ruling. However, if someone, like me, who lives in this country for a couple of years now, it has come as a surprise to learn that only very few leading representatives or ordinary members of the so-called „red shirt" movement were present - at least during the last two court sessions I have observed.
I am talking of the very same movement - though apparently more and more fragmented and divided into several groups by now - that took to the streets in 2009 and 2010, protesting against the unelected government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and affirming to champion democracy, human rights values and freedom in Thailand. When the court handed down its verdict to Somyot (who was the leader of the red shirt faction „24th June Democracy group") by citing a law which is violating these very principles of a democratic, open, and free society the red shirts were claiming to fight for, where have those masses of demonstrators been on 23rd January? Even more, the red shirts brought a government to power in 2011 led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, that remains for several reasons reluctant to make any attempts of modernizing or amending the lèse-majesté-law. It is difficult to say in which direction the country is heading.
Meanwhile, the newspaper "Bangkok Post" reported that "the Criminal Court chief judge insists the 10-year-prison-sentence handed down to Voice of Taksin editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk for lese-majeste-crimes is reasonable." The judge also "told critics to offer their opinions in good faith and without bias, or risk being prosecuted for contempt of court." A similar piece was published in the newspaper "The Nation".