35-year term for royal ‘insult’

A Thai man has been given the harshest sentence ever for insulting the monarchy on Facebook. 

Bangkok’s military court sentenced former insurance salesman Vichai Thepwong to 70 years in jail on 10 counts of lese-majeste, but halved the term because he had pleaded guilty.

According to iLaw, Vichai, 34, initially denied the charges, but later confessed after waiting for more than a year in custody for the court proceedings to start.

The previous record was a 30-year term handed down in 2015.

Insulting the monarchy can bring jail terms if between three to 15 years per incident.

Lese-majeste cases are routinely shrouded in secrecy, with the media forced to self-censor the details to avoid violating the all-encompassing law.

Reporters were barred from entering the military court during Vichai’s verdict.

There has been a sharp rise in lese-majeste prosecutions since the May 2014 coup and the generals decreed that the cases would be prosecuted in military courts. More than 100 people have been charged since the coup. The law is seen by observers as a means to gag dissent.

Vichai was accused of posting the defamatory messages to cause trouble for a former colleague he believed had cheated him, said the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights website.

He was arrested in Chiang Mai in 2015 and has been held in a Bangkok prison since. His lawyer said Vichai would not appeal.

“He wants the case to end and wants to petition for a royal pardon,” said Khumklao Songsonboon, also of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

The junta says the law is necessary to safeguard the monarchy and national security.

Prosecutions have continued under Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took the throne late last year after the death of his long-serving father.

Observers were intrigued to see how the new monarch would approach the dictatorial law, which in effect blocks scrutiny of the opaque monarchy.

Lese-majeste suspects are rarely acquitted or granted bail. The UN’s rights body said the widespread use of the law “may constitute crimes against humanity”.

In recent months, Bangkok threatened Facebook with legal sanctions if it failed to remove defamatory posts.

Facebook said it had complied with Thai demands.

Last Friday, another Thai man was jailed for five years for apparently insulting the monarchy. His sentence was also halved after a guilty plea.

Thais often avoid discussion of the monarchy. Picture credit: Wikimedia