Rights group decries abuse of Thai lese majeste law

BANGKOK (AP) — The Thai government’s use of a harsh law prohibiting criticism of the monarchy has intensified under military rule, an international human rights group said Friday.

Prosecutions under the lese majeste law since an army coup in May 2014 have infringed on the rights to liberty, a fair trial and freedom of expression, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said in a report.

“The abuse of lese majeste laws has contributed significantly to the deterioration of Thailand’s human rights record after the coup,” the group’s president, Karim Lahidji, said in a statement.

The report said six people were being held under the law at the time of the military coup, but the number has now increased to 53.

The report, issued in collaboration with Thailand’s Union for Civil Liberty, also said lese majeste investigations are almost three times more likely now to lead to criminal charges than before the coup. Thirty-six people have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms since the coup, it said.

Defaming the king, queen or heir-apparent is punishable by three to 15 years’ imprisonment per incident. The military says the law is needed to safeguard the monarchy and national security.

The report expressed concern that lese majeste cases have been handled by military courts since the coup, and said only four of the 66 people arrested under the law since the military takeover have been released on bail pending trial.

It said an increasingly loose interpretation of the law has allowed authorities to go after political opponents. The report cited cases in which charges were filed for mocking the king’s dog, criticizing past monarchs, wearing black on the king’s birthday, and expressing criticism of the lese majeste law itself.

Currently, anyone can file a lese majeste complaint, allowing people to pursue personal and political vendettas. To avoid accusations of disloyalty, police and prosecutors are reluctant to reject complaints regardless of their apparent lack of merit.

The group urged the government to reform the law so complaints can only be filed by the palace, trials are held in civilian courts, and freedom of expression is not criminalized.

The report’s findings echo those of U.N. human rights agencies and other private rights groups.

“Thailand’s lese majeste laws are vague, and the harsh criminal sanctions are neither necessary nor proportionate to protect the monarchy,” said Brad Adams, director of the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “The junta has arbitrarily and aggressively used lese majeste laws to prosecute people for any speech considered critical of the monarchy, no matter how ridiculous.”