Thai woman handed record four-decade jail term for lese majeste

A woman identified only by her first name Anchan, right, talks to her friend as she arrives at the Bangkok Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. A court in Thailand on Tuesday sentenced the retired civil servant to a record 43.5 years in prison for insulting the monarchy by posting audio clips online of comments critical of the royal institution. (AP Photo)

A Thai woman accused of insulting the royal family was jailed Tuesday for more than 43 years, a legal rights group said, the harshest punishment ever handed out under the country’s strict lese majeste laws.

The verdict comes as Thailand ramps up its use of the controversial legislation against democracy protesters, whose demands include reforms to the ultra-powerful monarchy.

Ostensibly meant to shield the royal family from defamation, insults or threats, section 112 of the penal code is routinely interpreted to include any criticism of the monarchy.

On Tuesday, Anchan — whose last name was withheld by human rights lawyers to protect her relatives — was convicted on 29 counts of lese majeste and given a total of 87 years in prison.

The court halved her sentence because she had confessed, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, which tracks royal defamation cases.

Her case dates back six years, when anti-establishment sentiment was growing after a 2014 military coup led by Prayuth. A former civil servant, was first arrested in 2015 after being linked to underground podcast host known as “DJ Banpodj”, a fiery critic of the monarchy. She was held in jail from January 2015 to November 2018 before being released on bail.

She denied the charges when her case was first heard in military court, where lese majeste offenses were prosecuted for a period after the coup. When her case was transferred to criminal court, she pleaded guilty with the hope that the court would have sympathy for her actions, because she had only shared the audio, not posted or commented on it, she told local media Tuesday on her arrival at court.

“So I didn’t really think this through and was too confident and not being careful enough to realize at the time that it wasn’t appropriate,” Anchan said to Associated Press.

She said she had worked as a civil servant for 40 years and was arrested one year before retirement, and with a conviction would lose her pension.

The previous longest sentence under the lese majeste law was the 35 years handed to a man in 2017.

AFP quoted a political analyst from Ubon Ratchathani University, Titipol Phakdeewanich, said Anchan’s verdict could be “politically motivated” to intimidate activists. But, he warned, such harsh implementation could backfire and “destroy the reputation of the institution of the monarchy domestically and internationally”.

Abolishing the lese majeste law is one of the key demands of an ongoing youth-led protest movement.

Since the demonstrations kicked off in mid-July, more than 40 activists have been charged under lese majeste laws for taking part in protests demanding the overhaul of Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha’s government and reforms to the monarchy.

The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group said Anchan had applied for bail pending an appeal against the sentence.


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