BANGKOK (AP) — A prominent Thai human rights lawyer was convicted Tuesday of insulting the monarchy and sentenced to four years in prison. This is the first conviction under a controversial law protecting the royal institution since a civilian government took office after years of military-backed rule.
Arnon Nampa was found guilty of defaming King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a student-led rally on October 14, 2020 that commemorated a popular uprising in 1973 that led to the overthrow of a decades-long military dictatorship. He was also fined 20,000 baht ($550) for violating an emergency decree banning large public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Arnon, 39, still faces 13 more trials under the lese majeste law, which punishes insulting the monarch, his immediate family and the regent with up to 15 years in prison.
The court said in its ruling on Tuesday that Arnon had stated at the rally that a dispersal would occur on the orders of King Maha Vajiralongkon. It said that this statement was false because the police had to decide on such measures and that Arnon had therefore defamed the king.
Arnon’s lawyer Kritsadang Nutcharat said his client would appeal and seek bail. Arnon hugged his son before he was led away and taken to prison.
Before entering the courtroom, Arnon told reporters that his fight was worth fighting for, even if he lost his freedom. He was accompanied by his wife, son and father. About 20 other people came to the Bangkok Criminal Court to express their solidarity.
“The new generation movement has created a phenomenon of change for the country that cannot be reversed,” Arnon said. “I want the struggle of the new generation to really change the country.”
Arnon was awarded the 2021 Gwangju Human Rights Prize by a South Korean foundation for his pro-democracy work.
He was one of the first to publicly call for reform of the monarchy and remains one of the movement’s most vocal supporters to this day. Earlier this year, he accused the government of using the internationally notorious Pegasus spyware to monitor his mobile devices.
The monarchy has long been considered a pillar of Thai society and criticism of it was taboo. Conservative Thais, particularly in the military and courts, still consider it sacrosanct. However, public debate on the issue has recently become louder, particularly among young people.
Critics say the lese majeste law is often used to suppress political dissent. According to the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 257 people have been charged in 278 cases since November 2020, including at least 20 minors.
Opposition to reform of the monarchy became clear following Thailand’s May general election, which ended the nearly decade-long rule of Prayuth Chan-ocha, who initially came to power in a military coup in 2014.
The progressive Move Forward Party won the most seats in the election but was blocked from power by parliament. Conservative members of the military-appointed Senate, which along with the elected House of Representatives decides the prime minister, voted to bar party leader Pita Limjaroenrat from taking office, citing his party’s call for mild reform of the lese majeste law.
The populist Pheu Thai Party, which came second in the election, then formed a coalition with military-backed parties and managed to form a new government under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin. The Pheu Thai party vowed not to touch the lese majeste law to drum up support for its rule.