By Nontarat Phaicharoen
A Bangkok court sentenced a Thai woman to a record 43½ years in prison Tuesday after she pleaded guilty to sharing audio clips on social media that were deemed as insulting the monarchy and violating Thailand’s harsh royal defamation law.
The sentencing stemmed from a case dating to 2014 and 2105, but came amid a spate of recent arrests of pro-democracy protesters charged under the law known as Lese-Majeste.
The defendant, a former Revenue Department official identified by media reports as 63-year-old Anchan Preelert, was initially sentenced to 87 years after her plea to 29 counts of Lese-Majeste. But the punishment was cut in half because she pleaded guilty, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, an NGO that represented her in court.
“What she did was she uploaded files on YouTube and shared them on Facebook. She pleaded guilty,” lawyer Pawinee Chumsri told BenarNews. “This is the harshest sentence the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights has ever documented.”
In a statement, the lawyers’ group said: “The court found Anchan guilty of insulting, defaming or threatening the late King Bhumibol, then former Queen Sirikit and their heir, by sharing the clips of Banpot,” referring to an underground online DJ who created the original audio clips.
“The court sentenced her to 87 years in jail but commuted it to 43 and a half years,” it said.
Pawinee said Anchan’s sentencing was closed to the public. The lawyer said the Bangkok Criminal Court declined to consider a bail request but would allow the Court of Appeals to decide within the next two or three days, adding that Anchan was remanded to prison.
Speaking to reporters before entering the courtroom, Anchan said she was employed as a civil servant at the revenues department at the time and did not realize she had committed a crime.
“The clips were shared widely and I did not think they were illegal,” she told reporters.
Anchan said she originally was tried by a military court where she pleaded not guilty. In 2019, she changed her plea to guilty after the case was transferred to a civilian court because she hoped that court would give her mercy.
Reacting to Tuesday’s sentencing, New York-based Human Rights Watch said the government sent a message in an effort to ward off youth-led protests against the monarchy.
“The severity of today’s court verdict is shocking and sends a spine-chilling signal that not only critics of the monarchy won’t be tolerated, but they will also be punished to the extreme,” Sunai Phasuk, a senior Thai researcher for HRW, wrote in a text to BenarNews.
“Thai authorities are seemingly using Lese-Majeste prosecution as their last resort measure in response to the youth-led democracy uprising that seeks to curb the king’s powers and keep him within the bounds of constitutional rule.”
He said the verdict was likely to make political tensions go from bad to worse.
“Those demanding democracy are not afraid. Instead they are reacting by making more direct and blunter criticisms about the monarchy,” he said.
Starting in mid-July 2020, student-led anti-government protesters have focused on three demands: that Prayuth, the prime minister and ex-junta leader, resign; the military-backed constitution be revised; and laws empowering the monarchy be reformed.
Since November, after Prayuth promised that all pertaining laws would be used against protesters, about 50 people have been charged with violating Lese-Majeste, which carries a maximum jail term of 15 years, according to iLAW, an online legal advocacy group.
Anon Numpa, a human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist leader, has said the protests would continue in 2021, but possibly in a different format to adapt to changing circumstances.
Anon last week received the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights from the South Korean-based May 18 Memorial Foundation. The prize is presented annually to international human rights activists, according to Thai media.
Meanwhile, Piyarat “Toto” Jongtep, another leader of the movement, said the looming threat of more people being charged with Lese-Majeste would not stop the protesters.
“I’m not intimidated to be charged under Article 112,” he told BenarNews last week. “I still have faith that leaders and the people are not scared to be charged with Lese-Majeste. We are seeing more resistance to this law.”