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Thai activist gets 15 years for insulting monarchy

A political activist was sentenced Thursday to 15 years in prison for insulting Thailand's monarchy, a verdict likely to increase attention on the country's strict lese majeste law.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A political activist was sentenced Thursday to 15 years in prison for insulting Thailand's monarchy, a verdict likely to increase attention on the country's strict lese majeste law.

The case resulted in Thailand's second harsh penalty in less than a month under a law increasingly criticized as an infringement on free speech and an instrument of political persecution.

Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, nicknamed "Da Torpedo" for her aggressive speaking style, has been detained without bail since July 2008 after speaking at rally where she used impolite language and was recorded by police.

The Criminal Court found Daranee guilty of violating the lese majeste law, which mandates a jail term of three to 15 years for anyone who "defames, insults, or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent, or the Regent."

After her sentencing, Daranee said she would not appeal: "I have no will to keep fighting and I will neither lodge an appeal nor seek a royal pardon."

Sentiment against the lese majeste law increased after a 61-year-old grandfather last month received a 20-year sentence for four text messages sent from his phone to a government official.

The sentence given Amphon Tangnoppakul, who has cancer of the mouth, was believed to be the heaviest ever handed down under the law. He denied sending the messages and said he didn't even know how to send texts, a position that increased public sympathy for him.

The plight of "Uncle SMS," as he became known, has drawn international attention as well to the lese majeste law.

So did the sentencing earlier his month to prison for two and a half years of Thai-born American, Joe Gordon, 55, to prison for two and a half years for defaming the country's royal family after he translated excerpts of a banned biography of Thailand's king and published them online. Gordon, whose Thai name is Lerpong Wichaikhammat, was in Colorado when the material was published and detained on a Thai visit.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman for East Asia, Darragh Paradiso, said the United States has utmost respect for the Thai monarchy, but is "troubled by recent prosecutions and court decisions that are not consistent with international standards of freedom of expression."

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued a statement of concern, saying "Such harsh criminal sanctions are neither necessary nor proportionate and violate the country's international human rights obligations."

Lese majeste prosecutions used to be rare in Thailand, and the accusation was mostly used for partisan political purposes as a means of smearing opponents.

But in recent years, as nervousness about the eventual succession to 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej's rule has increased, the number of high-profile cases has risen, with the previously taboo subject of the monarchy's proper role starting to become a matter of public debate.

A homegrown Thai movement, led by intellectuals and academics, earlier this year started a public campaign for reform of the lese majeste law, officially Article 112 of the Criminal Code. However, loyalty to the monarch is still a touchstone of Thai politics, and frank discussion is difficult.

This was Daranee's second trial. She received an 18-year term at her first trial, but courts later ruled her petition against having the trial closed was not heard in a timely way.