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Suspended jail term for Thai webmaster under royal law

Agence France-Presse
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who had faced a possible 20-year sentence, was found guilty of failing to speedily delete a post written by others deemed insulting to the royal family from her popular news website, Prachatai.

BANGKOK, Thailand (AFP) – A Thai online editor was on Wednesday, May 30, handed a suspended jail term for failing to remove comments critical of the revered monarchy on her website, amid demands to reform strict lese majeste law.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who had faced a possible 20-year sentence, was found guilty of failing to speedily delete a post written by others deemed insulting to the royal family from her popular news website, Prachatai.

Judge Kampol Rungrat sentenced Chiranuch to eight months in prison, but suspended the jail term for a year, saying that she had cooperated with the court in Bangkok and had “never violated the law herself”.

Analysts said the 44-year-old webmaster’s suspended term is unlikely to herald a wider loosening of the kingdom’s royal defamation laws, which critics decry as an assault on free speech, including online commentary.

Chiranuch was charged over 10 comments posted on Prachatai in 2008. The court found that she had removed nine of those posts quickly enough, but said the 20 days she had taken to remove one was in breach of the law.

“The defendant cannot deny responsibility for taking care of content on her website,” the judge said, adding she was initially given a one-year jail term but that this was reduced to reflect her “useful” testimony to the court.

The court fined Chiranuch 20,000 baht ($630).

She still faces a potential 50-year maximum sentence in a further trial — at a date to be set — for breaching a different section of the Thai criminal code outlawing insults to the royal family.

The monarchy is a highly sensitive topic in politically turbulent Thailand. The 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is revered as a demi-god by many Thais, has been hospitalized since September 2009.

Speaking after the verdict, a smiling Chiranuch — who throughout had denied the charges — left open the possibility of an appeal over her conviction.

“I will consult with my lawyer to see whether or not I should appeal to confirm my innocence,” she said, adding that she will “think hard” about re-opening the website’s forum, which was closed following the charges.

Chiranuch’s conviction follows considerable domestic and foreign condemnation of Thailand’s royal slur laws, but analysts said it would not mean fewer lese majeste prosecutions.

“It’s a victory for Chiranuch, but not an indication of a wider relaxation of the laws… we will see the law used over and over again,” said Thailand expert Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University in Japan.

The court tried to strike a balance between clamping down on perceived criticism of the royal family and avoiding an “international outcry”, according to David Streckfuss, an independent analyst based in Thailand.

“If they found her not guilty, it would open the door to reviewing whether past sentences seemed fair,” he said.

“By finding her guilty, they were trying to say no more leeway” to what can be said about the monarchy on the Internet.

Her denial was an unusual step as acquittals in lese majeste cases are rare and defendants tend to plead guilty in the hope of a royal pardon.

Scrutiny of the law has intensified since the death of a 62-year-old Thai man this month while serving a 20-year sentence for committing lese majeste.

On Tuesday, a petition signed by almost 27,000 people urging reform was submitted to parliament in the first mass action of its kind.

Amnesty International researcher Benjamin Zawacki welcomed the suspension of Chiranuch’s jail term, but said the guilty verdict still infringed on freedom of expression.

“For political purposes an acquittal was simply not on the cards,” he said. “The suspended sentence seems the most politically palatable way for the government to handle this.” – Thanaporn Promyamyai, Agence France-Presse

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