March 28, 2012 - The court today sentenced 38-year-old Ekkachai Hongkangwan five years in prison term and fine of 100,000 baht for selling documentary CDs produced by Australian Broadcasting Corporation and copies of wikileaks documents deemed defaming to the Queen and the Prince. Later it reduced sentence to three years and four month imprisonment with 66,666 baht fine, stating that defendant’s testimony benefitted the court.
The police arrested Ekkachai on March 10, 2011 after enticing him to sell a CD for 20 baht, and seized over 100 CDs, a CD burner and 10 copies of WikiLeaks materials. The police charged him for violating lese majeste and Film and Video Act. He was later granted bail with 500,000 baht guarantee.
The problematic CDs contained documentary aired on ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program in 2010 which critically discusses about Thailand’s monarchy and Maha Vajiralongkorn as the King’s successor.
The alleged wikileaks documents are US embassy cables from 2008 which indicated that the Queen supported the 2006 coup. Separate cables from 2010 consist of opinions about royal succession from Privy Council Chair Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, Privy Council member ACM Siddhi Savetsila, and former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun.
The judges deemed the content of the materials misleading and defamatory for the monarchy.
“The country’s constitution and criminal code stipulated that His Majesty the King is the head of state and highly revered. No one shall violate or use rights and liberties for any adverse effects. The state and its people have duties to uphold the monarchy system forever… Any defaming speech causing irritation to the feet of His Majesty shall not be acceptable,” the judge read out the verdict.
Ekkachai, a local vendor who previously sold lottery for a living, said he was upset by the court’s decision as his intention was merely to spread neutral and objective information produced by foreign media outlet to the public.
ABC issued statement today stating that ABC did not authorize any copying or sale of the program inside Thailand.
“When contacted by Mr Hongkangwan in 2011, the ABC expressed sympathy with his situation, but was not in a position to provide any further advice or assistance on his legal situation," the statement said.
Prominent social critique Sulak Sivaraksa previously testified in the trial as defender’s witness. He said the punishment for lese majeste is too severe. The monarchy should also be for open for criticism as it is important for democracy, he said.
Andrew MacGregor Marshall, former Reuters journalist who is the author of Thailand’s Moment of Truth, political analysis book based on leaked US embassy cables, said the verdict shows that Thai authorities want to silent discussion about the monarchy and its future.
“Ekkachai didn’t produce the material himself, he just distributed it. So presumably Australia's ABC and former U.S. ambassador Eric John are guilty of an even worse crime: creating the offensive material that Ekkachai distributed. Yet strangely, no charges have been laid.”
“None of them will see the inside of a jail cell, of course. The lese majeste law has no logic or fairness,” he said.