US citizen Joe Gordon was sentenced to 2-1/2 years jail today for translating a banned biography of the Thai king and posting it online while living in Colorado, drawing condemnation from free speech advocates and US officials.
Mr. Gordon is the latest to be charged on Thailand's lèse-majesté laws, some of the strictest in the world, which include prohibitions on posting anti-monarchy slurs online and can mean a prison sentence of 3 to 15 years. Exact figures are not available, but lèse-majesté cases and convictions have spiked in recent years amid political uncertainty since a 2006 military coup and concerns over what will happen when King Bhumibol Adulyadej's long reign ends.
But the latest sentence is the first time that someone has been jailed for a lèse-majesté offence committed outside Thailand. Noting this, Benjamin Zawacki, an Amnesty International representative in Thailand, said today's jailing of Gordon shows “the long arm of the lèse-majesté law.”
Gordon, born in Thailand as Lerpong Wichaikhammat, pleaded guilty to charges, which earned him a reduced sentence from the proposed five years, according to the judge in court today.
US consular official Elizabeth Pratt told reporters outside the court “we continue to have full support for the Thai monarchy, but will also continue to support the right to freedom of expression which is an international human right.” She added that Gordon will continue to get consular assistance as a US citizen.
Gordon lived in Colorado for some 30 years before returning to Thailand two years ago for medical treatment. He was arrested last May for posting a translation of a banned biography of Thailand's monarch, "The King Never Smiles," online from his US blog. Though the book is proscribed in Thailand, it occupies a prominent place in airport bookstores in Phnom Penh, Singapore, and elsewhere in the region.
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Jailed for sending a text message
Gordon's sentence comes soon after 61-year-old grandfather Ampon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years jail over four "sms" texts deemed to be offensive to Thailand's Queen Sirikit.
A public demonstration seeking Mr. Ampon's release is planned for central Bangkok on Dec. 10, and the sentence has raised eyebrows even among people who support the monarchy and the law as it is.
Ampon's wife, Rossamarin, told this correspondent that “my husband and lawyer have not yet decided to appeal or not.” Gordon will not appeal his much shorter sentence, but hopes for a pardon from Thailand's king, who has himself previously said that he is not above criticism.
"Our society needs to have a real constructive debate about the law, as otherwise you can have a situation where people can be jailed without fair trials. The king himself has said it is not healthy for society for people to be prosecuting each other," says Surat Horachaikul, a professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Still, Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi insisted that free speech in Thailand is not abating: “We abide by the principle of freedom of expression.” But he added, “people living in Thailand and coming to Thailand must abide by Thai law."
The current government counts people opposed to or seeking reform of the lèse-majesté law among its supporters, and is headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the 2006 coup after fierce opposition from Thai royalists.
However, the government has promised intensified prosecution of the laws, setting up a cyber "war room" to monitor online postings and warning people that they should not share or even "like" Facebook comments that possibly insult the monarchy.
According to Professor Surat, who participated in anti-Thaksin royalist protests in the past, "lèse-majesté is a very sensitive issue in Thailand. On the one hand you have people who want to abolish the law, on the other, you have people who want to keep it and use it more, and then there are others who want to reform the law."