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Jailing of actors for lese majeste stirs criticism

Feb 23. 2015
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By The Nation

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TWO THEATRE ACTORS, one of who is a university student, were sentenced to two and a half years in prison for staging a play in 2013 that was deemed defamatory to the monarchy.
The Criminal Court verdict was met by swift condemnation from rights groups, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) calling it “a serious blow to freedom of expression in Thailand” and Amnesty International calling it “an assault on freedom of expression”.
Patiwat Saraiyaem, 24, a fourth year student at Khon Kaen University, and Pornthip Munkong, 27, former coordinator of Prakai Fai Theatre Troupe, were found guilty of lese majeste for performing in the play “A Wolf’s Bride”. The play was staged at Thammasat University to mark the 40th anniversary of the October 14, 1973 uprising.
The pair was arrested in August last year on lese majeste charges, and for widely distributing the play via the Internet. With both pleading guilty, their sentence was reduced from five to two and half years. 
The courtroom was packed with members of the defendants’ family and friends, who reacted to the verdict with tears. 
The judges said the sentence would not be suspended even though the defendants pleaded guilty and had no criminal records, because their action was clearly defamatory to the monarchy, which is revered by the Thai people. 
After the verdict was announced, Patiwat said he “did not wish to file an appeal”, and some members of the audience began singing songs of support as the two were led back to prison. 
Pawinee Chumsri, a pro bono lawyer from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Group, said they would respect the defendants’ decision to not appeal the verdict. Her clients had already spent seven months in prison. Also, she said, since applications for bail had been rejected for a fifth time, so the only hope for them was a royal pardon. 
The lawyer said that the sentence was expected and she was “satisfied”, though they would have to wait and see if the prosecutor would bring more charges against the two. 
Meanwhile, HRW Asia’s director Brad Adams issued a statement yesterday saying the verdict was a “serious blow to freedom of expression in Thailand” and “another dark mark on Thailand’s already battered international reputation.
“Vowing to protect the monarchy, the junta has accelerated efforts to hunt down alleged lese majeste actions and statements, and prosecute people for peaceful expression of views, like conducting a play, posting online, or making a speech.”
Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s research director for Southeast Asia, said in a statement: “This is an assault on freedom of expression – it is appalling that Patiwat and Pornthip are now facing jail time just for staging a play. Since taking power last year, Thailand’s military authorities have made unprecedented use of the lese majeste law to silence and target critics who are simply peacefully exercising their human rights.
“The pair should never have had to stand trial in the first place and the verdict should be overturned and sentences expunged, regardless of their guilty plea, which should not be considered as an admission of criminal responsibility … Amnesty International considers all those who have been jailed solely for peacefully expressing their opinions to be prisoners of conscience, who should be released immediately and unconditionally.”

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