Human rights groups slam jailing of two Thai students for 'royal insult' in university play

Human rights groups slam jailing of two Thai students for 'royal insult' in university play

Human rights groups slam jailing of two Thai students for 'royal insult' in university play

Updated 25 February 2015, 7:25 AEDT

Human rights groups condemn the jailing of two Thai students found guilty of defaming the monarchy in a university play.

Human rights groups have condemned the jailing of two Thai students found guilty of defaming the monarchy in a university play.

Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Porntip Mankong, 26, were originally handed five-year jail terms but the sentence was halved after they pleaded guilty to defamation, a judge at Bangkok's Ratchada Criminal Court said.

Thailand's lese majeste law makes it a crime to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen or heir to the throne or regent.

The pair were charged over their performance of The Wolf Bride, which marked the 40th anniversary of an October 1973 military crackdown on a pro-democracy, student protest at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

Set in a fictional kingdom, the play featured a fictional king and his adviser.

Rights groups say lese majeste prosecutions have surged since the army seized power from an elected government last May.

Human Rights Watch said the guilty verdict was "another serious blow to freedom of expression in Thailand and another dark mark on Thailand's already battered international reputation".

Amnesty International called on Thailand's ruling military to overturn the "appalling" court ruling.

About 40 students gathered outside the court in defiance of a junta ban on demonstrations, chanting slogans in support of the pair and democracy.

Patiwat, whose feet were bound in chains, and Porntip were led out of the court in handcuffs.

Their lawyer, Pawinee Chumsri, said her clients, who have been detained since their arrest in August and denied bail, would not appeal.

Lese majeste cases expected to climb, activists say

Thai police are hunting for at least six others involved in the play for allegedly violating 112 law, a section of the Thai criminal code that contains one of the world's most draconian royal defamation laws.

Of those on the wanted list, at least two have fled Thailand, joining dozens of academics, activists and political opponents of the junta in self-imposed exile since the coup.

According to the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) at least 40 people have been arrested since the takeover.

It's a very grim situation for rights in Thailand.

FIDH Asia Desk Director Andrea Giorgetta

Other recent 112 convictions include a taxi driver jailed for two-and-a-half years after his passenger recorded their conversation on a mobile phone, while a student was sentenced to the same period of time for defaming the monarchy in a message posted on Facebook.

Critics say the lese majeste law has been used as a tool to suppress political dissent, noting many of those charged have been linked to the opposition Red Shirt movement.

Rights activists as well as the media are forced to censor discussion of cases since even repeating details of charges risks breaking the law.

Analysts say the most recent chapter of Thailand's long-drawn political turmoil is fuelled by anxieties over who will run the country when the more than six-decade reign of the world's longest-serving monarch eventually ends.

Andrea Giorgetta, from FIDH, also said the junta was drawing legitimacy through the monarchy and that the surge in lese majeste cases looked set to continue.

"We're expecting a lot more people to go to jail in the next month. Almost all cases have been backdated [for alleged offences] before the coup," he said.

"It's a very grim situation for rights in Thailand."

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, is revered by many in the country as a demigod and anyone convicted of insulting the royal family faces up to 15 years in jail on each count.

Lese majeste complaints can be filed by anyone, against anyone, and are always investigated by police.

ABC/AFP/Reuters