Thai court gives record 43-year sentence for insulting king

BANGKOK (AP) - A court in Thailand on Tuesday sentenced a former civil servant to a record 43 years and six months for violating the country's strict law to insult or defame the monarchy.
The Bangkok Criminal Court found the woman guilty of violating the country's law on 29 cases for posting audio clips on Facebook and YouTube with comments deemed critical of the monarchy, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group said.
The verdict, which came amid an ongoing protest movement that saw unprecedented public criticism of the monarchy, was swiftly condemned by right-wing groups.
"Today's court ruling is shocking and sends a creepy signal that not only will criticism of the monarchy not be tolerated, but also that it will be severely punished," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Violations of Thailand's Law of Majesty - commonly known as Article 112 - result in imprisonment ranging from three to 15 years per count. The law is controversial not only because it was used to punish things as easy as liking a post on Facebook, but also because anyone - not just royals or authorities - can file a complaint that the in Legal proceedings can bind the accused for years.
During the past 15 years of political unrest in Thailand, the law has often been both a political weapon and a personal weapon. However, actual public criticism of the monarchy had been extremely rare until recently.
That changed last year when young protesters calling for democratic reforms also called for demands for reform of the monarchy long viewed by many Thais as an almost holy institution. The protesters have said the institution is unaccountable and has too much power in a supposedly democratic constitutional monarchy.
The authorities initially left much of the comments and criticism without charge, but have arrested about 50 people since November and charged them with force majeure.
Sunai said Tuesday's sentence was likely intended to send a message.
“It can be seen that the Thai authorities are using law enforcement as a last resort in response to the youth-led uprising of democracy to curb the king's power and keep him under constitutional rule. Political tensions in Thailand will now continue to worsen, ”he said.
After King Maha Vajralongkorn ascended the throne after the death of his father in 2016, he informed the government that he did not want to see the law of his majesty being applied. But as protests rose over the past year and criticism of the monarchy intensified, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha warned that a line had been crossed and the law was being applied.
The protest movement has lost steam since the arrests and a new restriction on public gatherings that followed a surge in coronavirus cases.
Thai human rights lawyers identified the woman, who was sentenced on Tuesday by just her first name, Anchan, and said she was in her sixties. The court initially announced her sentence as 87 years, but reduced it by half because she pleaded guilty to the crimes.
Her case dates back six years when anti-establishment sentiment rose following a Prayuth-led military coup in 2014. She was held in prison from January 2015 to November 2018.
She denied the charges when her case was first heard in a military tribunal that pursued acts of God for the post-coup period. When her case was referred to a criminal court, she pleaded guilty in hopes that the court would have sympathy for her actions as she only shared, did not post or comment on the audio, she told local media upon her arrival on Tuesday in court with.
“I thought it was nothing. There were so many people who shared and listened to this content. The guy (who made the content) had been doing it for so many years, "Anchan said." So I didn't really think this through and was too confident and not careful enough to realize it wasn't appropriate at the time. ”
She said she had worked as a civil servant for 40 years and was arrested a year before she retired, and if convicted, she would lose her pension.
What was believed to be the longest force majeure verdict passed in 2017 when a military court sentenced a man to 35 years in prison for posting social media posts defamatory to the monarchy. The man, a salesman, was originally sentenced to 70 years but his sentence was cut in half after pleading guilty.
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Associated Press video journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.
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