Thailand seeks French help in capturing lese majeste exiles

Thailand seeks French help in capturing lese majeste exiles
A well-wisher pays respects before a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in a hall in Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital in 2014.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

BANGKOK - Thailand's junta has asked France to return three dissidents wanted under the kingdom's controversial royal defamation law, an official said Tuesday, as authorities ramp up prosecutions over perceived insults to the monarchy.

Under Section 112 of Thailand's criminal code anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.

It is one of the most draconian lese majeste laws in existence and makes it all but impossible for those inside Thailand to publicly write or say critical things about the royal family.

Thai Justice Minister General Paiboon Khumchaya made the request on Monday during a meeting with the French ambassador Thierry Viteau, a ministry spokeswoman confirmed.

"He said he gave the names of three 112 suspects to the ambassador," she said.

It is highly unlikely France would agree to the junta's request as the country does not have an equivalent law and would regard the offence as a free speech issue.

The trio are believed to have fled to France after the arch-royalist generals seized power in a May 2014 coup.

Thailand has not publicly named the accused. But Thai media have named the three as Saran Chuichai, a prominent gay rights activist, Jaran Ditapichai, a leader within the opposition Red Shirt movement and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a former history lecturer.

The French Embassy in Bangkok has yet to comment on the matter.

Last month the BBC's Thai service ran an interview with Saran in which she confirmed all three had been granted political asylum in France.

Lese majeste prosecutions have surged since former army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha toppled the democratically elected administration of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Critics of the law say it is used as a weapon against political enemies of the royalist elite and their military allies.

According to iLaw, a local rights group that monitors such cases, there were just two ongoing prosecutions for royal defamation before the takeover. Now that number is at least 56.

At a military court in Bangkok on Tuesday morning 10 people were given up to five years in jail for distributing audio recordings deemed to defame the monarchy.

Other recent cases include a 58-year-old man sentenced to 25 years in prison for the content of five Facebook posts and a bookseller jailed for an alleged offence back in 2006.

A mentally ill 65-year-old woman was also jailed last month for allegedly insulting a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Prayut has vowed to pursue people living abroad who have been charged with lese majeste - mostly critics of his regime.

In June Bangkok formally asked New Zealand to extradite a Thai wanted for lese majeste. So far the request has fallen on deaf ears.

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