Inmates barred from reading political news after coup: well-known lèse majesté suspect

After five years in prison, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a long-time labour activist turned lèse-majesté suspect, has urged the authorities to improve prison conditions, saying prisoners’ rights deteriorated greatly after the 2014 coup d’état.

Suwanna Tanlek, a pro-democracy activist, on Thursday morning, 16 June 2016, submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The petition was written by Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, former editor of the now-defunct Voice of Taksin magazine, charged with offences under Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse majesté law.

Somyot wrote in the petition that the rights and conditions for inmates in Bangkok Remand Prison have deteriorated greatly since the Department of Corrections (DC) imposed new prison rules and procedures on 1 March 2016.

Inmates are prohibited from reading newspapers and the DC allows their families to send them only three books per month, which they will be allowed to read only after the authorities screen the content of the books, Somyot states in the petition.

In addition, he added that the new DC rules stipulate that inmates can have only 9,000 baht per month in their bank account to buy commodities in prison and their relatives or families can transfer into their accounts only 3,000 baht per visit.  

This makes it difficult for families who live abroad or in other regions of the country to get money to inmates.

Recently, between 6-8 June, 2016, DC officers confiscated and destroyed the pillows, blankets and sleeping mattresses of inmates while issuing a new order which allows inmates to possess only three poor-quality blankets distributed to them by the DC, adding to the physical and emotional hardship of many elderly inmates already suffering from illnesses, Somyot added.

Suwanna, who recently visited Somyot, told the NHRC that it is quite clear that the measures to prohibit inmates from reading newspapers and to regulate the type of books they could read were enforced after the 22 May 2014 coup d’état in order to bar them from consuming political news.

“If inmates are imprisoned for three to five years and are not allowed to consume news from the outside world, they will have great difficulties in adjusting once they are released,” Suwanna said. “There is a joke among inmates who would ask if they still use mobile phones with buttons outside prisons.”

She added that another issue which is not mentioned in the petition is the restriction on visits to inmates. After the 2014 coup d’état, the authorities permit only 10 officially-listed visitors per inmate, which causes great difficulty to their friends and families.

“I’m here today to ask for help. Somyot told me that the restrictions might get worse once the complaint is made,” said Suwanna, adding that it is undeniable that Somyot is a prisoner of conscience.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, the head of the sub-commission on political rights of the NHRC promised Suwanna that she will pass on the petition to the NHRC and relevant authorities for consideration, adding that if Somyot feels unsafe or is treated worse in prison after making the complaint, the NHRC should be informed immediately.

Since he was first arrested in April 2011 and placed behind bars, like the majority of detainees charged under Article 112, Somyot has been consistently denied bail, despite 16 bail applications being submitted.

The long-time labour rights activist and human rights defender was, from 2007 until his arrest, editor of the Voice of Taksin magazine. In Somyot’s case, the Article 112 charges stem from his publishing two articles with allegedly anti-monarchy content in the now defunct magazine.

Unlike many other lèse majesté suspects who choose to plead guilty to end their trial and have their jail sentence reduced, Somyot has always stood firm and maintained his innocence.  

Somyot in prison (photograph from the Facebook page of Sa-nguan Khumrungroj)