Thailand: US Ambassador probe highlights ‘absurd’ restrictions on freedom of expression
Thailand must stop using the lèse majesté law to criminalize freedom of expression, Amnesty International said today as the US Ambassador to the country faced a police investigation for alleged defamation of members of the Thai royal family.
Glyn Davies has been accused of alleged lèse majesté offences over comments he made last month expressing concern at the lengthy jail sentences handed down to those convicted of breaking Thailand’s royal defamation law.
“The authorities’ vicious application of the lèse majesté law has left dozens of individuals in jail for the peaceful exercise of their rights, with some facing military trials without the right of appeal,” said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Research.
“The fact that allegations of lèse majesté can be made for raising legitimate concerns highlight the current absurd extremes of Thailand’s restrictions on freedom of expression.”
Anyone can file a lèse majesté complaint in Thailand even though there are no public guidelines on what constitutes an offence. The police report that they are obliged to investigate each complaint, and any police officer who fails to act upon a complaint may themselves be deemed to be breaking the lèse majesté law.
The fact that the case against Glyn Davies has even entered the criminal justice system shows the shocking state of freedom of expression in Thailand.
Thailand’s Penal Code states that whoever “defames, insults or threatens” the King, the Queen, the Heir apparent or the Regent” is liable to be punished with a minimum of three years’ and maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment.
Prisoners convicted of lèse majesté are treated as though they have committed serious security offences. Two lèse majesté suspects died in October and November this year in a temporary military detention centre for national security cases, where they were held without proper detention safeguards.
Glyn Davies, who took up the post of US Ambassador last month, raised concerns about Thailand’s application of the lèse majesté law during a talk at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand on 25 November 2015.
“The fact that the case against Glyn Davies has even entered the criminal justice system shows the shocking state of freedom of expression in Thailand, where citizens can face prosecution and many years in prison for any manner of innocuous ‘offences’ under this vaguely defined law,” said Audrey Gaughran.
“Defamation must not be the subject of criminal laws. The Thai authorities should repeal or amend this law to meet their international obligations on freedom of expression, and drop all charges against and release those individuals penalized for their peaceful exercise of this right.”
Since Thailand’s military government took power in a coup d’etat in May 2014, an unprecedented number of people have been charged and convicted under the lèse majesté law.
The provision for others to file complaints on behalf of the King and his family provides opportunities for the law to be misused for personal or political purposes and has also led to vigilante style policing and suppression of freedom of expression.
Trials of lèse majesté offenders have been shrouded in secrecy, with one anti-government activist describing the law to Amnesty International as “a convenient way to attack your opponents”.