Military and criminal courts disagree over lèse majesté case

The military and criminal courts for the first time have disagreed over which court should have the jurisdiction to try a lèse majesté suspect.

The Criminal Court on Ratchadaphisek Road, Bangkok, on Tuesday, 22 September 2015, ruled that it has jurisdiction over the case of 52-year-old Sirapop (surname withheld due to privacy concerns), suspected of offenses under Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse majesté law.

The ruling was delivered after the defendant submitted a request to the criminal court under Article 10 of the 1999 Court Jurisdiction Act to ask whether he should be tried by the civilian instead of the military court. The Criminal Court statement, however, contradicts the verdict of the military court, which earlier ruled that it has jurisdiction over the case.

In brief, Article 10 of the Court Jurisdiction Act stipulates that if the accused has doubts over which court should have jurisdiction over a case, the suspect can submit a request before trial to the court of justice or the military court to rule on the jurisdiction over the case. If rulings from different courts over jurisdiction vary, the Court Jurisdiction Committee shall determine which court should handle the case, which is what will now happen in this case.

Sirapop was indicted by military prosecutors for offences under Article 112 of the Criminal Code and Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act (importing illegal content into a computer system) for composing and posting lèse majesté poems on his personal blog and Facebook page under the pen name ‘Rung Sila.’

Besides the lèse majesté charge, he has also been indicted for defying Order No. 41/2014 of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) for not reporting to the military in June. Sirapop was arrested on 25 June 2014 in northeastern Kalasin Province, while he was attempting to flee to a neighbouring country. After being detained for seven days, he was accused of posting messages deemed lèse majesté on the Internet. He has since been detained at the Bangkok Remand Prison. The military court repeatedly denied him bail, citing flight risk and severity of the charge.

Anon Nampa, the lawyer representing Sirapop, last year submitted a petition urging the military court to consult the Constitutional Court for a ruling on whether NCPO Order No. 37/2014 to transfer jurisdiction over lèse majesté cases to the military courts, where appeals are not allowed, breaches Article 4 of the 2014 Interim Charter.

The lawyer also reasoned that the alleged lèse majesté crime of the suspect was committed before the coup d’état, therefore the case should go to a civilian court. However, the military court dismissed the claim, stating that the suspect imported lèse majesté content into the computer system which persisted until after the 2014 coup.

“Now, the decision is not yet final, [we] have to wait for the [Court Jurisdiction] Committee to finalise it. If the Committee decides that the case shall be handled by the criminal court, then the military court has to send the case file to the criminal court to proceed, which would allow the defendant to fight the case up to the Supreme Court,” said Anon.

During the first trial in January 2015, Sirapop told Prachatai “I’m still determined to fight for my principles for I believe that I’ve done nothing wrong and apparently according to the law I’m still innocent even though [lèse majesté] suspects like us are usually discriminated against.”

The defendant, who is the father of three with his youngest child still in high school, could face up to 45 years imprisonment if he is found guilty.

Since the 2014 coup d’état, most lèse majesté suspects have been tried in the military court system which does not allow appeals and where most cases are tried in camera. Most importantly, the military courts have given average prison jail terms of 9.5 years to lèse majesté convicts, while the civilian courts have given 4.5 years.

On 7 August 2015, the Bangkok Military Court broke the record by sentencing Pongsak S. to 60 years imprisonment for offences under Article 112 and Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act (importing illegal content into a computer system). The court gave a 10-year prison term for each of six lèse majesté counts. Since the suspect pleaded guilty as charged, the court halved the sentence to 30 years in jail.