BANGKOK — Anti-government activists on Tuesday called upon the authorities to stop employing the royal defamation law even as the number of people accused under the charge has risen to at least 23.
The list of suspects charged with the crime, also known as lese majeste, includes many activists behind the protests calling for monarchy reforms, such as Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa. Fourteen of them turned themselves in with the police on Tuesday to hear complaints lodged against them under Article 112 of the Criminal Codes.
“We talk about monarchy reforms, the Crown Property, and other problems,” Jatupat said. “Using Article 112 makes freedom of expression non-existent … There is no justice.”
A 17-year-old boy identified as Petch was also charged with inciting sedition. “I consider it a diploma for graduating in acts of protests,” Petch said at the police station
A total of 23 people were charged under Article 112 so far since PM Prayut Chan-o-cha said that the authorities would use every available law in the book against the reform protest leaders, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, who is representing the accused on a pro-bono basis.
It’s the most widespread use of the offense in recent years, said Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen, a lawyer from the group, who also noted that the law was not deployed for about three years until recently.
“Prayut said it himself in June that the King instructed him not to use the law,” Poonsuk said. “It’s clear that there’s no certainty. The lese majeste law has become a political tool.”
Some of the activists were also charged with multiple counts of lese majeste – seven counts for Parit and four for Panusaya, for instance – meaning that they could face a harsh prison term if convicted. Lese majeste carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
Lese majeste trials are sometimes carried out in secret for the sake of “national security,” and the mainstream media are routinely discouraged from covering details of the charges.
Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, one of the nine activists charged on Tuesday said before reporting himself to Chanasongkram Police Station in Bangkok that he is innocent and he will fight the case.
“I did nothing wrong. I spoke the truth and will fight to death without running away,” Somyot said. “I will definitely win because the situation has changed.”
A director for Amnesty International’s Thailand chapter said the royal insult law is not up to international human rights standards and its use should stop immediately.
“The timing is wrong and people should not be charged under the law,” Piyanut Kotsan said by phone. “They should have the right to express themselves without fears.”
Although the letter of the law only covers “insults or threats” made against the King, the Queen, the Regent, and the Heir Apparent, the authorities often cited lese majeste in their prosecution of any critical discussion about the monarchy.
Abolishing the offense is part of the 10-point demands for monarchy reforms pushed forward by the activists. The fact that the government is now endorsing the return of lese majeste shows that there could be little to no chance of a compromise, a senior human rights campaigner warned.
“By bringing back the lese majeste charges, it signals that the Thai state is not willing to make any compromise with pro-democracy protesters,” Sunai Phasauk from Human Rights Watch said.
“Many venues for discussion have been shut down. What the government should do is to listen to dissenting voices,” Sunai added.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Petch as a lese majeste suspect. In fact, he was charged with sedition.