A Thai court has sentenced a woman to a record 43.5 years in prison for sharing social media posts deemed insulting to the royal family under the kingdom’s harsh lese majesty law.
Anchan Preelert’s conviction on Tuesday came amid a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, with dozens of people indicted since November under article 112 of the penal code. Civil liberties groups interpreted the verdict as a warning from the army-backed Thai government to the country’s six-month-old pro-democracy movement to curb its criticism King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family.
Anchan, a former civil servant, was initially sentenced to 87 years, but that was halved to 43.5 years because she pleaded guilty.
“The signal is very clear: not only that criticism of the monarchy will not be tolerated, but that it will also be punished to the extreme,” said Sunai Phasuk, researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Thai lèse majesté law provides for a maximum sentence of 15 years for those convicted of making statements deemed defamatory or insulting to the king or his immediate family. The government has defended the law, the toughest of its kind in the world, as necessary to protect the royal family from defamation, but human rights groups describe it as a fundamental threat to free speech.
Anchan was prosecuted on 29 counts of breaking the law and violating the kingdom’s computer crimes law for uploading audio clips from Banpodj, an anti-monarchist broadcast network, to YouTube and Facebook.
She was arrested by 10 plainclothes and uniformed soldiers in January 2015 while the king’s father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was still on the throne, according to iLaw, a Thai human rights group.
The Anchan case began in a military court in July 2015, while Thailand was still under emergency rule following a coup. His trial was conducted in secret, as is often the case in most other lese majesté cases.
The decision to hold the trial without observers came after “the court reviewed the complaint and found messages that may create damage against the king, queen and heir,” iLaw said. After more than three years in prison, Anchan was released on bail at the end of 2019.
Pro-democracy protesters led by Thai youth have made the abolition of Section 112 a central goal. In a movement that started to gain strength last July, participants have issued unprecedented criticism of the king’s powers and personal fortune, the fact that he mainly lives in Germany and the disappearances and murders of anti-government Thai exiles.
Protests have calmed down since December after a new wave of coronavirus infections urged the government to ban large gatherings.
Authorities largely refrained from bringing lese majesty charges after King Vajiralongkorn took the throne in 2016. Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thai prime minister and former head of the military junta, said last year that the law had not been invoked at the will of the king.
However, according to Human Rights Watch, authorities have opened lese majesty cases against at least 54 people since November, including several young people arrested over the weekend for spraying graffiti criticizing Article 112. Police dispersed two protests on Saturday. in Bangkok to call the law was revoked and arrested several people.
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