Editor's jailing 'setback for human rights'

The conviction and imprisonment of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, former editor of the Voice of Taksin magazine, has not only undermined freedom of expression but is also a setback to human rights protection and promotion in Thailand, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay (Reuters file photo)

In Geneva, Ms Pillay expressed her deep concern in a statement  Wednesday about the jsentencing of editor and prominent activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk.

Somyot was convicted of lese-majeste offences for publishing two articles ruled to be critical of the monarchy in his Voice of Taksin magazine. 

He was imprisoned for a total of 11 years in prison for breaches of Article 112 of the Criminal Code, which states that "whoever, defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years".

"The conviction and extremely harsh sentencing of Somyot sends the wrong signals on freedom of expression in Thailand. The court's decision is the latest indication of a disturbing trend in which lese-majeste charges are used for political purposes," Ms Pillay said.

"I welcome and support the efforts made by some parliamentarians and academics to propose amendments to Article 112 in order to address concerns related to the application of the law," she said.

The high commissioner also expressed concern over the length of Somyot's pre-trial detention. He was denied bail 12 times by the courts. 

"I am disturbed that Somyot has been denied bail and presented in court on several occasions wearing shackles - as if he were some kind of dangerous criminal," Ms Pillay said.

"People exercising freedom of expression should not be punished in the first place," she added.

On Aug 30 2012, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had concluded that Somyot's detention was arbitrary and requested the Thai government to take all necessary steps to "release Somyot Prueksakasemsuk and accord him an enforceable right to compensation" in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Thailand is a party.

"Activists, journalists and academics play a dynamic role in fostering Thailand's human rights culture," Ms Pillay said. "This reflects positively on Thai society, but cases such as Somyot's risk reversing the important progress made by Thailand."

Somyot Prueksakasemsuk raised his hand in a victory sign before the Criminal Court convicted him on two counts of lese majeste on Jan 23, 2013. (Photo by Surapol Promsaka na Sakolnakorn)

The Washington-based Freedom House has also denounced the verdict and called for his immediate release, and for the government to amend its laws to protect free expression in accordance with international human rights standards.

"It is deeply concerning that free speech advocates like Somyot are targeted, detained, and meted out sentences such as this," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of Southeast Asia programs at Freedom House.

"The kinds of charges leveled against Somyot create a chilling atmosphere of fear and self-censorship that severely undermines Thailand's self-professed commitment to democracy," Gunawardena-Vaughn said.

The government's prosecution of speech critical of the monarchy stifles open debate and has contributed to Thailand's depressed ratings in Freedom House's annual surveys. The lese majeste law, along with the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, have been used in several high-profile prosecutions against free speech advocates and bloggers in recent years.

Thailand is rated Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2013 and Freedom of the Press 2012, and Not Free in Freedom of the Net 2012, she said.

Emeritus professor of history Benedict Anderson said he was disturbed to learn that the editor, not the writer, was punished.

Moreover, said Mr Anderson, people would be asking now why a member of the media was given a harsh sentence while those who have killed others in other cases were given milder sentences.

He believed this issue should also be raised during the Bangkok governor election campaign.

A group of activists planned to protest against Somyot's jail term and non-bail situation on Friday by burning law textbooks in front of the Criminal Court at Ratchadapisek, Bangkok.

Related search: UNHCR, lese majeste, freedom of expression, human rights, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk

About the author

columnist
Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior Reporter