Thai court grants rare suspended sentence over royal defamation

BANGKOK - A Thai court has handed a rare suspended jail term to a man convicted for royal defamation, his lawyer said Thursday, as prosecutions under the controversial law surge in the junta-ruled nation.

It is the first suspended sentence in a lese majeste case under the military regime, according to a local legal body, in a country where the monarchy is shielded by some of the toughest royal defamation legislation in the world.

Niran Yaowapa was found guilty Tuesday of posting a fake report about the health of Thailand's revered but ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, on the website of an ultra-royalist local broadcaster in February.

But the court showed leniency as Niran, 50, deleted the post "within 10 minutes", his lawyer Suwat Apaipakdi told AFP, reducing by half and then suspending an initial five-year sentence.

"The court said Niran is not that old so still has an opportunity to contribute to the country," Suwat added.

Prosecutions under the archaic law have skyrocketed since Thailand's military - the self-designated protectors of the monarchy - seized power in a coup last year.

Critics say the legislation has been politicised, noting that many of those sentenced in recent years have been linked to the "Red Shirt" street movement, which supports fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Niran, whose employer the broadcaster ASTVManager is known for its anti-Shinawatra stance, told AFP Thursday that he "respected" the court's decision.

Thailand's long-running political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite, backed by parts of the military and judiciary, against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin.

His younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra's government was ousted following months of street protests culminating in last year's coup.

Surprise decision

Since grabbing power, the junta has stepped up online patrols for perceived royal insults.

In record sentences passed in August, a Thai court jailed a 48-year-old-man for 30 years for "insulting" the monarchy on Facebook. The same day a woman received a 28-year jail term also for posts on the social media website.

Their convictions drew severe international condemnation including from the United Nations.

Younger Thais have also not escaped the law.

In February a 23-year-old student and an activist, 26, were jailed for two-and-a-half years for lese majeste over their roles in a satirical play set in a fictional kingdom.

The suspended sentence this week has come as a "surprise" to iLaw, a local group that monitors arrest figures.

"This is the first time the military court has suspended a prison sentence for someone convicted under the lese majeste law," it said in a statement on its website.

On October 19 another man, a Red Shirt activist, faces trial for sharing the same post, according to iLaw.

Anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in jail on each count in Thailand, where Bhumibol is revered by many Thais as a near-deity.

Both local and international media routinely self-censor when covering issues related to the royal family as even repeating details of charges could break the law.

ASTVManager was launched by Sondhi Limthongkul, who also founded the royalist "Yellow Shirt" street movement opposed to the Shinawatras, who have directly or through their proxies won every election since 2001.

They are loathed by the royalist elite who accuse them of widespread corruption and subverting the kingdom's political status quo.

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