BANGKOK — A university student was taken from his dorm in the middle of the night, charged with royal defamation, and then slapped with a cybercrime charge less than 24 hours later for refusing to give up his computer password.
Police accused Thammasat University student Sirichai “New” Nathuang of defaming His Majesty the King by spray painting political slogans on the portraits of three Royal Family members on Sunday, according to his lawyer Poonsuk Poonsukcharoen.
The 21-year-old was arrested at his home on Wednesday night and held incommunicado for several hours, Poonsuk said. It was the first time police made an arrest over royal defamation charges, or lese majeste, since the crackdown started in November. At least 40 people have been charged with lese majeste so far.
Poonsuk said police also searched Sirichai’s apartment, and refused to inform his family and lawyers where he was being held until some hours later.
“He has the right to a lawyer the moment he was arrested,” Poonsuk, who works for the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, said by phone. But for a considerable period, he was not allowed to call any lawyer.”
Poonsuk added that she only gained access to her client at about 1.15am on Thursday morning, and said police’s behavior could have been interpreted as an abduction.
Police Lt. Yotsawat Nitiratpattakul of Klong Luang Police station, which has jurisdiction over the case, refused to answer questions about the manner of Sirichai’s arrest.
When asked to comment on the allegation that Sirichai was not given an opportunity to consult his attorney, as given to him by the law, Lt. Yotsawat replied, “I cannot give details about that either.”
Sirichai was later charged with Computer Crime Act on Thursday evening for refusing to give up his computer password as demanded by the investigators, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said.
He stands accused of insulting His Majesty the King by spray painting slogans calling for abolition of lese majeste offense over large portraits of the late King Bhumbol, the Queen Mother, and Princess Sirivannavari that were displayed in public areas close to his university on Sunday.
Poonsuk the attorney cast doubt on whether the lese majeste law is applicable in Sirichai’s case, since the letter of the law only covers the King, Queen, Heir Apparent, and Regent.
But the lese majeste offense, enshrined under Article 112 of the Criminal Codes, has been routinely used by the police to silence any discussions about the monarchy. The offense took a hiatus for several years – PM Prayut Chan-o-cha said it was due to His Majesty the King’s clemency – only to make a return in November.
Chaitawat Tulathon, sec-gen of the opposition Move Forward Party, said on the phone Thursday that the latest arrest under lese majeste was “disproportionate,” since the student was apprehended in the dark of the night, and had no access to lawyers for hours.
Chaitawat also said his party is preparing a proposal to amend all defamation laws, including lese majeste, which could be submitted to the Parliament as early as next Wednesday, if the House reconvenes for a meeting amid the pandemic.
On the other hand, pro-government Phalang Pracharath Party deputy leader Paiboon Nititawan said he supports the ongoing crackdown on those accused of defaming the monarchy.
“It’s a justice process,” Paiboon said by phone. “Since the law stated that it’s a violation. Even if it’s 40 people, they must be arrested. Everything is under the due process of law. I personally support the arrests. The latest case wasn’t a minor and he must fight through the justice system.”
Democrat Party spokesman Ramet Rattanachaweng said he would not comment on lese majeste cases, including the latest arrest.
“We don’t know what the facts are,” Ramet said. “This is the police duty, to find out whether someone committed a crime or not.”