By Simon Roughneen and Mark Magnier. Reporting from Bangkok, Thailand, and New Delhi, India
A U.S. citizen Thursday received a 30-month prison sentence in Thailand for insulting the king, the latest punishment handed down under a law critics see as archaic, prompting the U.S. government to denounce the ruling as excessive and a violation of free speech.
The case, filed under Thailand’s lese-majeste, or “injured majesty,” laws, also involves issues of citizenship and jurisdiction. Thai-born Lerpong Wichaikhammat, 55, a U.S. resident for the last three decades, was convicted of posting online a Thai translation of “The King Never Smiles,” an unofficial biography, several years ago while living in Colorado.
Lerpong, whose American name is Joe Gordon, was arrested in May during a visit to Thailand to seek treatment for arthritis and high blood pressure. He pleaded guilty in October. The Bangkok criminal court halved his original five-year term, citing his confession.
“In Thailand they put people in jail without proof,” Lerpong said Thursday, his arms and legs shackled, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. “I was born in Thailand, but this does not mean I am Thai. I am proud to be an American citizen.”
Thailand has some of the world’s toughest lese-majeste laws, protecting its popular monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, and immediate family. In recent years, the number of such cases has jumped and sentences made tougher. Critics and political scientists say the law is archaic, violates free expression rights and is being used by people aligned with the ailing king to protect their interests during a period of political turbulence.
“Freedom of information goes by the wayside because no one feels secure enough to speak out,” said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at Singapore Management University. “This is an overstepping of the law.”
The U.S. government expressed its displeasure over the sentence.
“We fully consider Joe Gordon a U.S. citizen,” Elizabeth Pratt, consul general at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, told reporters. Washington considered the punishment “severe because he has been sentenced for his right to freedom of expression,” she said.
Foreigners charged under Thailand’s lese-majeste laws often receive a royal pardon after a short time in prison, although Thais usually don’t enjoy such leniency. Last month, Thai truck driver Ampon Tangnoppakul, 61, received a 20-year sentence for sending four text messages deemed offensive.
Lerpong’s lawyer said his client doesn’t plan an appeal but will request a pardon in a month.
Some analysts had expected fewer lese-majeste cases after July’s election of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. But her government has supported the conservative laws, even establishing a cyber “war room” to monitor online postings. Information Minister Anudit Nakorntab recently warned Thais not to click “like” or “share” next to Facebook postings potentially offensive to the monarchy.
“I think that the increase of cases is like a snowball effect,” said Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
Thailand’s constitution says: “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.” Although supporters say the lese-majeste and computer crime laws backing this up — which carry up to 15-year prison sentences — hold the country together, the statutes have come under growing criticism in Thailand and abroad. Even the king was quoted in 2005 saying he wasn’t above reproach.
Charges can be filed by anyone, with the police obliged to investigate. This inevitably leads to abuses, critics say.
In 1986, a deputy minister was forced to resign for joking on the campaign trail that he wished he’d been born a prince. “I would be drinking whiskey instead of standing here getting pains in my knees,” he said.
“Gordon’s conviction and incarceration represent another repugnant example of an ultra-zealous, arch-royalist inquisition against any appearances of dissent,” said Paul Chambers, research director at a global studies institute of Chiang Mai’s Payap University. “The fact that he possessed foreign citizenship further demonstrates how far the Thai government is willing to [go to] enforce this decree.”
Asked Thursday whether he would stay in Thailand after serving his time, Lerpong said: “I would like to stay and see some positive Thailand. I want to see the real, amazing Thailand, not the messy Thailand.”
Special correspondent Roughneen reported from Bangkok and Times staff writer Magnier from New DelhiShow
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