BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai court sentenced an Australian writer to three years in jail on Monday for defaming the crown prince, the latest in a slew of lese-majeste cases that rights groups say are stifling freedom of speech.
Harry Nicolaides, who appeared in court in leg-irons and wearing brown prison overalls, remained impassive as he heard his sentence, which stemmed from his 2005 novel ‘Verisimilitude’, only seven copies of which were ever sold.
“I wish my family the best,” the 41-year-old Greek-Australian said as he was led from the court to begin his jail time.
The judge said Nicolaides’ confession had led his sentence to be cut from six to three years, the minimum term allowed for the offence under Thailand’s penal code.
Earlier, Nicolaides told reporters he still did not know who had filed the police complaint about the novel, which was billed on one Thai website as an “uncompromising assault on the patrician values of the monarchy”.
“This is an Alice in Wonderland experience. I really believe that I am going to wake up and all of you will be gone,” he said.
Lese-majeste, or insulting the monarchy, is a very serious offence in Thailand, where many people regard 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej as semi-divine. It is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Critics of the law say it is open to abuse since a complaint can be filed by anybody against anybody, no matter how minor the alleged disrespect.
It has been a regular feature of the turbulence that has gripped Thai politics for the past three years.
Even though the king himself has said he should not be above criticism, the police feel obliged to investigate every complaint that lands on their desks, fearful that dismissing an apparently trivial case might itself be deemed disrespectful.
Earlier this month, Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga vowed to toughen laws protecting the monarchy and crack down on criticism of the palace stemming from the recent political turmoil.
A Thai man accused of insulting the monarchy in comments posted on the Internet was arrested last week. The administration has blocked some 2,300 websites it deemed critical of the palace.
Rights activists have accused the new government of stifling free speech. But Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said last week he was trying to “strike the balance between upholding the law and allowing freedom of expression”.
Nicolaides was a regular, long-time visitor to Thailand and had been teaching English at a university in the northern city of Chiang Mai, writing the occasional article for regional newspapers and websites.
He was arrested at Bangkok airport as he tried to leave the country, unaware of a warrant issued in March, police said. “I was aware that an obscure law existed, but I was not aware it would apply to me,” Nicolaides said, shortly before entering a formal guilty plea.
A Swiss man, Roland Jufer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2007 for spraying black paint on pictures of the king, but was pardoned at Thai New Year in mid-April after serving only four months. Jufer was deported as soon as he was released.
Additional reporting by Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul