Prawet Prapanukul: lèse majesté suspect who fights like an “underdog”

While suspects ordinarily seek ways to reduce their sentence or prove their innocence, a human rights lawyer accused of royal defamation has dismissed his defence lawyers, called no witnesses and challenged the court’s authority in protest against injustice.
 
On 8 May 2018, the Bangkok Criminal Court heard a witness in the case where human rights lawyer Prawet Prapanukul, 57, is accused of violating Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the royal defamation law.  
 
Before the testimony began, Prawet had a heated 30-minute argument with two judges. He said he did not believe the court will rule his lèse majesté case with fairness and impartiality, given that the court repeatedly rejected his bail requests. So he asked the judges to try him in absentia and hand him the maximum sentence of 50 years in prison. 
 
The judges asked him to calm down and confirmed that they would rule the case with justice and sympathy to the defendant, adding that nobody can influence the court. Prawet replied that he will not accept the authority of the court to prosecute him but would not obstruct testimony. 
 
The judges then asked everyone to leave the courtroom and began the trial in camera. Staff from the UN told the judges that they had already asked the court for permission to monitor proceedings. But the judges insisted that they had to leave. The court will read the verdict on 23 May 2018.
 
Arguing heatedly with judges like this will not benefit Prawet’s case in any way. In fact, it could bring the extra charge of contempt of court. But in light of his actions in the past, his primary goal might not be winning the case, but rather revealing problems in the Thai justice system. 
 
Apart from the argument with the judges, Prawet dismissed all his lawyers, refused to sign all documents and did not call any defence witnesses. The reason he gave was that the Thai justice system was not sufficiently impartial to rule on royal defamation prosecutions, so he decided to deny the authority of the court.
 
Kritsadang Nutcharat is one of Prawet’s three former defence lawyers and his current involvement in the case is as the defendant’s legal advisor. When the court announced that the trial would be held in camera, Prawet asked the judges to allow Kritsadang to stay with him, but they insisted that he could remain only if Prawet appointed him as a defence lawyer. Eventually, Kritsadang also had to leave the courtroom. 
 
As a lawyer, Kritsadang disagrees with Prawet’s decision to defy the court, but as a long-term close friend, he understands him.
 
“I agree because it is Prawet ... it goes with the way he lives. His decision allows him to live without suffering for the rest of his life. He is determined to do serious work, and he is a serious person,” said Kritsadang.
 
“How would you measure it? If it’s about winning the case, then it’s wrong. You can’t win the case with these methods. If it’s about a short sentence, it won’t work either. If you use these methods, you don’t get a pardon. But if it is measured in pride or self-satisfaction, then it can be considered a success.” 
 
 
Prawet Prapanukul

Case background 

 
Prawet’s arrest is related to the disappearance of the 1932 Revolution Plaque in April 2017. Prawet shared Facebook posts of Somsak Jeamteerasakul, an exiled critic of the Thai monarchy, which discussed the controversial issue. On 29 April, soldiers raided his house and arrested him, as well as five other individuals, and detained them at a military camp in Bangkok. 
 
Initially, the military held him incommunicado, and he was not allowed to contact anybody, so he staged a hunger strike on 30 April. A day later, the authorities allowed him to make a phone call to his friend. That was the first time the public knew about his whereabouts.
 
In early May, the military transferred the six to the police and pressed lèse majesté charges against five of them for sharing Somsak’s Facebook posts about the missing plaque. The court granted the police the permission to detain them in custody and rejected all their bail requests. However, the public prosecutor eventually decided not to indict and released them all, except Prawet.
 
He was indicted on 10 royal defamation charges, three sedition charges and one cybercrime charge. All the accusations were related to Prawet’s Facebook posts. His sentence could total 171 years in prison, but Article 91 of the Penal Code sets 50 years as the maximum sentence. 
 
In July 2017, when the court held a witness hearing in his case, he decided to dismiss all his defence lawyers and announced that he would deny the court’s authority throughout the whole prosecution.
 
“I must accept in this case that, legally, you can never win, or be acquitted, or prove yourself innocent according to the current criminal laws. There is no way at all. That’s why I say I agree [with him],” Kritsadang stated. “When you compare it with what Prawet is, I think he was happy to make this decision.”

Difficulty in reaching the public

 
However, the public does not see Prawet as a political martyr, but just another radical redshirt. Here are some headlines from local outlets that reported Prawet’s cases.
 
“Stubborn lèse majesté lawyer announces rejection of Thai court system” (Daily News)
“Red lèse majesté lawyer stubborn, rejects Thai court system” (Naewna)
 
Anon Chawalawan from iLaw, a human rights advocacy group, pointed out that under the military government, freedom of expression is significantly limited and intimidation nationwide has made people too afraid to raise public awareness of Prawet’s case. 
 
He is not a high-profile political activist and does not have a strong connection with any political group, Anon added. Therefore, only a few people campaign for his release, given that the case is directly related to Article 112. 
 
One of the attempts to release Prawet is the small Facebook page “Free Prawet Prapanukul” which is run by a friend of his (name withheld due to privacy concerns). The page has around 500 followers at press time.
 
Prawet's friend said that she collected and published reports and documents from foreign media and human rights organisations related to Prawet’s case. Her page also gives updates on Prawet’s well-being after visits to him in prison, publishes his statements, and allows others who know Prawet to tell stories about him to the public under codenames “Relative Number….”
 
“At first, I tried to open Facebook accounts from inside Thailand. I registered both new emails and Facebook accounts five times because it turned out that whenever I started posting, a day later the page disappeared or I suddenly couldn't log into my account. I don’t know why, so I had to ask my friend living in another country to register for me. It turns out that it works until today, despite using the same page name. This is something I really don’t understand,” she added.

Life behind bars

 
In detained for over a year, Prawet is starting to get used to a new life behind bars. He has become a calmer person than when he was outside. He said he was lucky that he used to practice some meditation, so he knows how to stay focussed on breathing and the present moment, which prevents him from being depressed. Reading books is one of his favourite activities to kill time and boredom.
 
“In here, many Thai-language books are [Buddhist] prayer books. There are many great English books but I can't read well. There is The Da Vinci Code. Now I’m reading a novel of Agatha Christie. I can’t remember the name. My friend just sent me a dictionary a couple of days ago. I’m really into it because I very much want to read this book,” Prawet said. “I don’t feel alone, but just feel lonely sometimes.”
 
Asked the reason for challenging the authority of the court, he said as an “underdog” like him, this is the only option.
 
“Have you ever seen an underdog who doesn’t fight?” Prawet said. “Fighting like this is not only for my case. It’s for all 112 cases. Because the court is not impartial on this issue, it has no right to rule in 112 cases. So even in cases where the verdict has been given, we have to invalidate all cases.”