Thailand Doles Out Longest-Ever Sentence for Criticizing Royalty

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Over two months in 2021, an online clothing vendor shared 27 posts on Facebook that included clips from John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” a Fox animated series, and a BBC documentary. The content was deemed offensive to the monarchy, and this week his sentence was extended, to 50 years in prison.

It is the harshest penalty to date imposed under a law that makes criticizing royalty a crime, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a group of lawyers providing assistance to people detained after the country’s 2014 military coup.

Thailand has one of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws; it forbids defaming, insulting or threatening the king and other members of the royal family. Known as Article 112, the charge carries a minimum sentence of three years and a maximum sentence of 15 years. It is the only law in Thailand that imposes a minimum jail term.

Even though a civilian government took office in September after almost a decade of military rule, there has been no letup in the number of prosecutions against people who have criticized the monarchy. Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has said he would not amend or abolish the law, which observers say will only exacerbate the gulf in a nation that remains deeply polarized.

“Thailand is clearly not an open society, regardless of what the government says,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.

Mongkhon Thirakhot, 30, the clothes vendor, who is also a political activist from northern Chiang Rai province, was initially sentenced in 2023 to 28 years in prison for 14 social media posts that were deemed to have insulted the king.

On Thursday, the court of appeals in Chiang Rai found Mr. Mongkhon guilty of 11 more counts of violating the royal criticism law and added 22 years to his sentence, according to Akarachai Chaimaneekarakate, the advocacy lead at Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Mr. Akarachai said the social media posts shared episodes eight and 12 from Season 1 of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” in which the host mocked the Thai king, his wife, and their poodle. The other offending post included a clip from the Fox animated series “American Dad” that showed the characters stealing “the king’s diamond-encrusted inhalator.” Mr. Mongkhon was also convicted for posting “The Soul of a Nation,” a BBC documentary about the Thai royal family.

Mr. Mongkhon was dealt such a harsh sentence because of the sheer number of Facebook posts, as well as a unique feature in the law that imposes a minimum sentence on each charge, according to Mr. Akarachai. He said that Mr. Mongkhon was given a reduced term because the judge found that he was cooperative during the trial.

“I think it’s safe to say that it is now undeniable that Thailand’s anachronistic lèse-majesté law is in dire need of reform,” Mr. Akarachai said.

This year, courts in Thailand are expected to rule on hundreds of lèse-majesté cases, four years after protests in 2020 motivated thousands of young, disaffected Thais to take to the streets. They called then for checks on the king and the palace’s power, breaking a taboo of never challenging the monarchy. The then-prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who seized power in the 2014 coup, instructed all government officials to “use every single law” to prosecute anyone who criticized the monarchy.

Because anyone can bring charges under the royal criticism law, hundreds of lèse-majesté cases were filed after the protests. Since then, at least 262 people have been charged with violating the law, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Earlier this week, a court in Thailand extended the sentence of Arnon Nampa, a prominent activist and a lawyer, by another four years for three Facebook posts that were considered to have defamed the monarchy.

Mr. Arnon, 39, is already serving a four-year sentence handed down in September for his speech during a pro-democracy rally in 2020 that touched on the monarchy. The sentences will run consecutively, so he will serve eight years in jail. He is still awaiting verdicts against him in 12 additional such cases.

This month, a court is expected to deliver a verdict against Pita Limjaroenrat, the former opposition leader who had led the Move Forward Party to an election victory last year. He is accused of seeking to end Thailand’s constitutional democracy with the king as head of state through Move Forward’s election campaign to amend the royal defamation law.

Civil society organizations are pushing for an amnesty bill for those facing charges for taking part in political protests. Mr. Akarachai said his group has more than 800 such cases on hand.

“If the government insists on wanting to prosecute every single case to the very end, we will be in the same place in 2025 and 2026,” he said.

The previous sentencing record for a lèse-majesté conviction was in 2021, when Anchan Preelert, a 65-year-old former civil servant, was sentenced to 43 years for sharing audio clips on YouTube and Facebook between 2014 and 2015 that were deemed critical of the royal family.

The court initially handed Ms. Anchan a sentence of 87 years but halved it because she agreed to plead guilty.

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Thailand Doles Out Longest-Ever Sentence for Criticizing Royalty

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