A COURT in Thailand has jailed a Thai-born American for 2 1/2 years for defaming the monarchy, a sentence that the US criticised as “severe”.
The conviction of Joe Wichai Commart Gordon, who appeared in court in shackles yesterday, is the latest in a series of cases under the kingdom’s strict lese majeste laws, which rights campaigners say are used to stifle free speech.
The Criminal Court sentenced Gordon to five years in prison, but halved the term as the car salesman from Colorado pleaded guilty to publishing online a banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej he had translated into Thai.
“Joe decided not to appeal this case but will ask for a royal pardon,” his lawyer Arnon Nampa said in Bangkok. “In this case the court gave the lightest jail term for a lese majeste case. He’s been in prison six months already. The worst case is two more years in jail but I hope that he’ll receive a royal pardon.”
Gordon, 55, was arrested in May on a visit to the kingdom and accused of posting the material deemed offensive while living in the US.
Under Thailand’s strict laws, anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
A US official said Gordon should not have been jailed. “We consider the sentence severe because he was given the sentence for his right of expression,” said consul-general Elizabeth Pratt. “We continue to respect the Thai monarchy but we also support the right of expression, which is internationally recognised as a human right.”
Washington, which counts Bangkok as one of its oldest allies, voiced alarm over a series of court cases in the kingdom over speech deemed to be offensive to the monarchy.
Critics say Thailand has increased use of its lese majeste legislation as a way to suppress freedom of expression, particularly under the last government, which was supported by the Bangkok-based elite.
Observers say the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who took power in August, has yet to improve the situation.
In a conviction that alarmed activists, Ampon Tangnoppakul, 61, was jailed last month for 20 years on four counts of sending messages to the private secretary of the then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in May last year.
The European Union said it was “deeply concerned” about that sentence.
Thailand’s frail king, who turned 84 on Monday, has reigned for 65 years but has been in hospital since 2009.