Prison fears over Thai royal insult laws

A US citizen who says he risks prison in Thailand has sued an Internet company for allegedly handing over his personal data, in a legal test touching on the kingdom’s tough ban on royal insults.

Anthony Chai, a Thai-born naturalized American who runs a computer store in California, said in a lawsuit that Canadian web service provider Inc. broke US law by sharing his personal information with Thai authorities.

On a now defunct website, Chai posted anonymous comments critical of Thailand’s “lese majeste” law in which criticism of the royal family carries up to 15 years in prison. Critics say the law is frequently abused.

Even though he did not identify himself on the site, Chai said that agents pulled him aside for interrogation at Bangkok’s airport and that he fears imprisonment if he returns.

In comments to AFP, Chai said he hoped to draw attention to the “despicable” law on lese majeste and to test Thai authorities’ contention that their rules apply around the world and not only inside the kingdom.

“So many innocent Thai people are now rotting in Thai jails across the country in Thailand because of their belief in freedom of expression,” Chai said.

Such expression “does not contain any violence or promotion of violence. The whole country is held hostage by this law,” he said. Inc. did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment. The company’s website says that it provides web hosting and domain names to more than 1.2 million websites around the world.

The lawsuit said that confirmed in correspondence that it suspended the website Manusaya, on which users at Chai’s shop posted anonymous comments, in 2005 after complaints from Thai authorities. Chai said he was interrogated in Bangkok in May 2006.

Chai said he suffered “severe psychological and physical stress” during two days of questioning, in which authorities seized his laptop, forced him to surrender his passwords and told them they knew where his family members lived.

Chai said he was forced to write a letter praising and apologising to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch who is revered as a demi-god by many Thais.

In the lawsuit, Chai said that he wanted to appear cooperative and agreed to meet twice later in the Los Angeles area with Police Colonel Yanaphon Youngyuen, the director of Thailand’s bureau of high tech crimes – once at an airport McDonald’s restaurant and then at Hollywood’s Magic Castle Hotel.

The lawsuit said that Inc. violated Chai’s rights under the US Constitution’s First Amendment which guarantees the right to free speech. The suit also said that the company violated California’s business code which bans the sharing of confidential information.

Allison Lefrak, litigation director at the World Organization for Human Rights USA who is representing Chai, hoped that the case would have a “broader effect.”

“For us, it’s an important case to underscore the need for all Internet communication companies to think about these human rights issues,” she said.

Chai is seeking an injunction on the company’s release of private information as well as at least $75,000 in compensation. Among his losses, Chai said he felt obliged to sell stock shares in Bangkok as he is afraid to return.

More than 100 international academics recently called on Thailand to review the lese majeste rules, saying that the number of cases has risen sharply in recent years amid political polarization in the kingdom.

In March, the webmaster of a site linked to the then opposition was jailed for 13 years after it allegedly published comments insulting the monarchy.

A US citizen was also arrested in Thailand in May over Internet postings.

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