Thai cops charged with insulting royals

BANGKOK - Two high-ranking Thai police officers have been charged with royal defamation, an official said yesterday, a rare arrest of senior public servants as use of the draconian law intensifies after a May coup.

Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapun and his deputy, Kowit Vongrongrot, have been charged under the strict lese majeste law, a police spokesman told AFP.

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

"The two police officers have been arrested and charged under Section 112," national police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri said, confirming their names and positions.

He declined to give other details of the arrests.

Rights groups say there has been a rise in both charges and convictions under Thailand's royal slur law - one of the strictest in the world - since the army seized power on May 22.

Under martial law - declared two days before the coup by then-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is now premier - suspects are now tried in military courts, where there is no right of appeal.

Earlier cases were handled in civilian courts.

The royal family is a highly sensitive topic in the politically turbulent kingdom where 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej - the world's longest-reigning monarch, who is currently in a Bangkok hospital - is revered by many as a demi-god.

The law is designed to protect the monarchy from insult, but academics say it has been politicised in recent years as the ailing king's reign enters its twilight.

Many of those charged have been linked to the "Red Shirt" movement, whose activists are broadly supportive of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

It is rare for high-ranking public servants to face charges under the law.

Last week, a Thai radio show host was sentenced by a military court to five years in jail for royal defamation.

Earlier this month, a 24-year-old student was jailed for 21/2 years for defaming the monarchy.

In another recent case, a 28-year-old musician was sentenced to 15 years in jail for writing insulting Facebook posts about the royals between 2010 and 2011.

The coup is the latest twist in Thailand's long-running political conflict, which 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.

Part of the political strife also centres on anxiety over the issue of succession. King Bhumibol is seen as a unifying figure but his son and presumed heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, does not command his father's popular support.