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A Thai court sentences an activist to 28 years for online posts about the monarchy

Political activist Mongkhon Thirakot flashes the pro-democracy gesture of a three-finger salute ahead of going to a court in Thailand's northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, Thursday Jan. 26, 2023.
Political activist Mongkhon Thirakot flashes the pro-democracy gesture of a three-finger salute ahead of going to a court in Thailand's northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, Thursday Jan. 26, 2023.

BANGKOK — A court in Thailand sentenced a 27-year-old political activist to 28 years in prison on Thursday for posting messages on Facebook that it said defamed the country's monarchy, while two young women charged with the same offense continued a hunger strike after being hospitalized.

The court in the northern province of Chiang Rai found that Mongkhon Thirakot violated the lese majeste law in 14 of 27 posts for which he was arrested last August. The law covers the current king, his queen and heirs, and any regent.

The lese majeste law carries a prison term of three to 15 years per incident for insulting the monarchy, but critics say it is often wielded as a tool to quash political dissent. Student-led pro-democracy protests beginning in 2020 openly criticized the monarchy, previously a taboo subject, leading to vigorous prosecutions under the law, which had previously been relatively rarely employed.

Since November 2020, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a legal aid organization, at least 228 people, including 18 minors, have been charged with violating the law, even as the protest movement withered due to arrests and the difficulties of conducting protests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chiang Rai court found that 13 messages posted by Mongkhon, an online clothing merchant, did not violate the law because they related to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the father of current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or did not mention a specific royal figure. Mongkhon was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison for each of the other 14 posts. The 42-year total prison term was reduced by one third, to 28 years, because of Mongkhon's cooperation with the court.

Mongkhon was granted release on bail while his case in on appeal, under the conditions that he does not engage in acts that damage the monarchy or leave the country.

Prosecutions under the lese majeste law have recently drawn increased public attention because of a prison hunger strike by two female activists charged with the offense.

The two, Tantawan "Tawan" Tuatulanon and Orawan "Bam" Phupong, had been free on bail but announced earlier this month that they were revoking their own release to return to prison in solidarity with others held pending trial on the same charge. They issued demands including reform of the justice system, the release of political prisoners and the restoration of civil liberties by abolishing legislation such as the lese majeste law.

After three days back in prison, they began a hunger strike in which they are not consuming either food or liquids, a life-threatening tactic. On Tuesday they were transferred from the prison hospital to a state hospital with better facilities.

As their strike continued, supporters staged small protests.

The opposition Move Forward Party, which has been offering support, has proposed amending the lese majeste law, but no action has been taken in Parliament.

The proposal would reduce the punishment for defaming the king to a maximum of one year in prison and a fine of up to 300,000 baht ($9,160), while an offense against the queen, the king's heirs or the regent would be subject to a maximum six-month prison term and a fine of up to 200,000 baht ($6,100).

"The entire Thai justice system has a problem and so does the enforcement of the lese majeste law, which is also used as a political tool. Thailand has to solve this and make its distorted justice system better," said Pita Limjaroenrat, the party's leader.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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