Incredibly, a Thai magazine editor was sentenced to 11 years in prison today for the crime of lese-majesty against the king. In an unusual reaction for an international diplomat, UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay called the sentence “extremely harsh” and a setback for human rights in Thailand.

Earlier, a UN Group branded the detention as arbitrary and asked the Thai government to release and compensate Somyot Pruksakasemsuk. He published two satirical articles from contributors to his magazine “Voice of Taksin” (Voice of the Oppressed), which were deemed critical to the monarchy.

Judges refused bail 12 times in his 21-month pre-trail detention and police brought him to court in shackles like a dangerous criminal. Finally, he was handed an exemplary sentence to deter lese-majesty, a relic from a long-gone time when rulers claimed to be divine. Critics also think it was aimed at political activists seeking change in Thailand.

Pillay’s censure will remain unheeded, of course. But it does draw attention to one of the stranger aspects of world we live in. Most of us imagine that personal freedoms are sacrosanct, or at least sought after, in economically successful and modern countries like Thailand and others in South East Asia. But traditional practices like extreme reverence for a king can overrule common sense.

Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code states that “whoever, defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

“People exercising freedom of expression should not be punished in the first place,” Pillay said. “…The court’s decision is the latest indication of a disturbing trend in which lese-majesty charges are used for political purposes.”

Somyot was arrested five days after he launched a petition campaign to collect 10,000 signatures required for a parliamentary review of the lese majesty law. Since the campaign was legal, the two articles were used as a path to punish him even though he did not write them.

Unlike the judges, global human rights watchdogs see Somyot as a human rights defender and labor activist. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the Union for Civil Liberty (UCL) strongly condemned the conviction today.

“Making a criminal offense out of political satires is bad enough, but prosecuting the editor who did not write them brings the abuse to a whole new level”, said OMCT chief Gerald Staberock.

International criticism of Somyot’s treatment has continued for nearly two years, without impact on Thailand’s prosecutors. They ignored a finding by a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that his pre-trial detention violated international human rights law and standards.

However, some rays of hope remain. The Thai government, which insists it is wedded to rule of law and protection of human rights, could support recent efforts by parliamentarians and academics to amend Article 112. It could also allow legal appeals to overturn the Somyot verdict. Perhaps, it will not stifle such hopes.

Brij Khindaria, Foreign Affairs Columnist
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