Thailand charges 5 men with royal defamation for Facebook 'shares'

The royal defamation law bars any criticism of the royal family and forces media to heavily self-censor.

Thailand King's condition not stable;
Well-wishers holds up portraits of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, October 13, 2016. REUTERS

Thailand charged five men with violating the country's draconian royal defamation law for sharing Facebook posts written by an exiled dissident academic, a human rights lawyer said Thursday.

This is the largest known lese majeste prosecution case so far under Thailand's new King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne after the October death of his father. The observers have been closely watching how the law is applied under his reign. The defamation law bars any criticism of the royal family and forces media to heavily self-censor.

According to reports, the five men, who have not been named, were remanded in custody on Wednesday for sharing Facebook posts written by a Paris-based Thai historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul about the disappearance of a democracy plaque in Bangkok last month.

Anon Numpa, from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights told AFP: "They shared Somsak's posts about the 1932 plaque." However, the lawyer did not elaborate on what the posts said.

The small bronze monument, which lay in Bangkok's heavily-policed Royal Plaza, was mysteriously replaced by a new plaque bearing a royalist message in April. The monument marked the 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand.

This replacement sparked fury among Thailand's hard-pressed democracy campaigners who fear the monument was removed with official backing. The authorities have moved to stifle discourse on the missing plaque and have detained several activists who have tried to call for an investigation.

Last month, Thai authorities warned that contacting, following or sharing social media posts by military government critic Somsak could be grounds for legal action.

The five faced charges alongside prominent human rights lawyer Prawet Prapanukul, who was hit with a record ten counts of royal defamation for a series of social media posts apparently containing republican sentiment.

The 57-year-old Prawet faces a maximum 150-year sentence under a law that assigns up to 15 years in prison per offence. Recently in a Facebook post, Prawet encouraged Thais to push the boundaries of the lese majeste law, which has choked expression across the kingdom's media, academia and arts.

A police officer from the technology crime suppression division has confirmed that the men were remanded over lese majeste charges. But, he declined to comment any further regarding the charges.
Royal insult cases are typically shrouded in secrecy as even repeating defamatory content can be grounds for prosecution. Use of the law has shot up under the royalist military government that seized power in 2014.

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