In Thailand, three years in jail for ‘insulting’ royalty

Australian Harry Nicolaides wrote a book that included one paragraph deemed offensive.

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BANGKOK, THAILAND – Not long ago, Harry Nicolaides was another aspiring novelist toiling in obscurity. His self-published debut “Verisimilitude” sold only seven copies.

Today, he got his 15 minutes of fame. But it wasn’t exactly the publicity he might have craved.

A Thai court sentenced Mr. Nicolaides, an Australian, to three years in jail for offending the monarchy, a criminal offense in the Kingdom of Thailand. He had pleaded guilty, earning a sentence at the lower end of the prescribed range for lèse-majesté.

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The crime was committed in a single paragraph in “Verisimilitude,” a 2005 novel set in Thailand that is salted with social commentary. At the sentencing, the judge read out the offending section to the court, which was packed with foreign reporters. The judge said the author had insulted the king and crown prince in the passage.

What exactly did Nicolaides write to deserve such harsh treatment?

That would be telling. And telling is tantamount to repeating the offense in the eyes of the Thai legal system. So I won’t do it, though stealthy Internet searches may turn up an excerpt or two from the book, which until recently was on the shelves of Thailand’s National Library.

Most Thai media steered well clear of today’s trial, part of the self-censorship and coercion that ensures uncritical coverage of the royal family and the institution.

That means few Thais will find out that Nicolaides defamed their royal family. He is hoping for a royal pardon so he doesn’t spent the next three years in a Bangkok prison. That’s why he pleaded guilty.

Thailand’s courts are likely to be busy with more such cases, as authorities are increasingly cracking down on loose royal commentary.

The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that a Thai lawmaker has proposed raising the maximum penalty for the crime to 25 years. The lèse-majesté laws in Thailand are already some of the world’s harshest, with a punishment of three to 15 years in prison. Police say they are currently investigating 32 cases of the crime.

Outspoken academic Giles Ungpakorn was ordered last week to report to police for questioning in a lèse-majesté case. With typical bravado, he called a press conference to denounce the case as political repression and argue for the immediate abolition of the century-old law.

Naturally, this rated barely a squeak in Thailand’s media.

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