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Thailand: 61-year-old man convicted of lèse majesté dies in prison

Paris-Bangkok, 9 May 2012. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its Thai member organization, Union for Civil Liberty (UCL), are deeply saddened by the death of Mr. Amphon Tangnoppakhun, who was convicted on 23 November 2011 and harshly sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was accused of sending four text messages deemed offensive to the Queen of Thailand to a personal assistant of the Prime Minister in 2010, in violation of Article 112 of the Criminal Code and the Computer-related Crimes Act of 2007. He had insisted on his innocence throughout his trial.

Mr. Tangnoppakhun, also known as Ah Kong (grandfather) and Uncle SMS, was arrested on 3 August 2010 and was shortly released on bail on 4 October 2010. After he was charged by court on 18 January 2011 he was rearrested and the judge rejected his application for bail. Subsequent applications for bail were all rejected. The latest request made in February 2012 was rejected by the Appeals Court which reportedly ruled that “The illness which the defendant claims, as one of the reasons for bail, does not appear to be life-threatening.” In early April, he decided to withdraw his appeal and seek a royal pardon. Mr. Tangnoppakhun had previously suffered from mouth cancer and was reportedly experiencing stomach pains for months before his death. He was admitted to a prison hospital on 4 May but was found dead on the morning of 8 May.

The conditions of Thai detention centres fall far short of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the medical services provided are often primitive. The premature death of a prisoner in fragile health must be independently and credibly investigated, and the findings of the autopsy that has reportedly been performed should be published promptly. Prison was a very inappropriate environment for the detention of an aged prisoner in poor health, said FIDH and UCL.

The case of Mr. Tangnoppakhun is one of hundreds of lèse majesté cases that have been sent for prosecution at the Court of First Instance in the past years. The number of lèse majesté cases that have reached the Court of First Instance has increased alarmingly since the military coup in 2006; whereas 30 charges were sent for prosecution in 2006, that number skyrocketed to 478 in 2010, according to government statistics.

FIDH and UCL consider Article 112, commonly known as the lèse majesté law, as well as related provisions of the Computer-related Crimes Act, as inconsistent with Thailand’s Constitution and  obligations under international human rights treaties which it has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires States to protect freedom of expression. The formulation, scope and application of the law have resulted in restrictions on freedom of expression and opinion in conflict with constitutional rights of the Thai people. The Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand stated in its latest report that keeping the lèse majesté law in its current form was an obstruction to reconciliation and repeated its recommendation to the government to amend it.

The law is broadly worded and lacks adequate administrative or judicial safeguards against arbitrary interpretation and abuse. It allows for any individual to bring lèse majesté charges. Each count of violation of the law carries between three years to fifteen years of imprisonment. According to sources that closely monitor the application of the law, there is a dramatic 94% conviction rate.

“Ignoring the need to stem the abuse of the lèse majesté law will only aggravate a sense of injustice already pervasive across the country,” said Danthong Breen, Chairman of UCL. “As a member of the Human Rights Council, it is unacceptable that Thailand allows its law to criminalize free speech with little regard to the rule of law and democracy.”

“The death of Mr. Tangnoppakhun is a reminder to the Thai authorities of the tragic and inhumane impact of the application of the lèse majesté law, including the systematic denial of bail,” said Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President. “The Thai government should heed the growing calls of the Thai people as well as the international community to amend the law to bring it into line with international human rights law or repeal it.”


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