The Supreme Court recently handed out a landmark verdict in a lèse majesté case in which the defendant was found guilty of defaming King Rama IV, reigning between 1851-1868, surprising lawyers and academics who have always understood that the law does not cover former kings.
The notorious lèse majesté law or Article 112 in the Criminal Code clearly states "Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, Heir-apparent or Regent shall be punished (with) imprisonment of three to fifteen years." After the coup d’etat in 2006 to overthrow Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the number of lèse majesté cases soared.
In this case, the Supreme Court ruled in mid-October to uphold the decision of the Court of First Instance in 2007 to sentence the defendant to four years in prison, but as the defendant pleaded guilty, the jail term was halved, with the jail term suspended for two years. The Appeals Court in 2008 acquitted the defendant on the grounds that former kings was not covered under Article 112.
“Even though it was an offence against the deceased king, this is still lèse majesté because defaming the former king can affect the current king,” read the verdict. “As King Mongkut was the great grandfather of the current king, if [the court] narrowly interpreted the law to have it cover only the current king, it would open the door for more offences and defamation against the current king.”
Moreover, “although [King Rama IV] has passed away, Thai people still revere him,” the court ruled. “If there is an insult or defamation against the deceased king, this can hurt the feeling of Thais, which may lead to dissatisfaction and affect the national security of the kingdom.”
The case is obviously motivated by personal conflict. Natchakit (last name withheld because of privacy concerns), a local politician in eastern Chonburi province, was sued by a rival local politician in 2005 after he attacked his rival on a local radio programme. Natchakit, who has almost always lost in municipal elections to his rival, complained that even though he was approached to join the rival’s party, he did not want to because he did not want to be controlled.
The problematic speech of the defendant reads “[Speaking of] human dignity, of what we do, if we do it freely with our own thoughts for you people, I’ll go. However, if it would be like [in the era of] King Rama IV, I won’t. That era has ended.” The statement refers to the time before King Rama V abolished slavery in 1905.
According to Sithipon, the defendant’s son, the defendant had not appointed any lawyer to represent him in the case. “After we consulted with lawyers, we thought this was a hot potato case. The chance of winning the case was slim. The best way to quickly end this was to plead guilty.” The case went to the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court because the public prosecutors did not want the jail term to be suspended.
Natchakit has also been targeted in several defamation suits by the same person, his son added. “My father’s speech was monitored.”
Speaking on behalf of his father, Sithipon said his 54-year-old father is a supporter of the elite-backed Democrat party, while his mother is for the pro-establishment ultra-royalist yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Asked if Natchakit faced social sanction after news of the notorious case spread, his son said “Despite his involvement in this lèse majesté case, people [in the municipality] know us.”