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Six accused of torching royal portraits acquitted

Sep 21. 2018
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By Agence France-Presse

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Six young Thais accused of setting portraits of some Royal Family members on fire have been granted rare acquittals, their lawyer said yesterday, escaping strict royal defamation charges that can carry 15 years in jail.

Thailand has some of the harshest lese majeste legislation in the world. 

The law, known as Article 112, carries a maximum sentence of 15 years per count and trials are often held behind closed doors.

But the six people were acquitted on appeal earlier this week after being arrested in 2017 for allegedly vandalising ceremonial arches bearing pictures of members of the Royal Family in the Northeast province of Khon Kaen. They said they had been hired to do the job.

Initially convicted in January, they still face jail terms of three to nine years on charges of criminal association and burning the property of others, according to the Lawyers for Human Rights. 

The court ruling on the royal insult charge said the defendants’ actions were aimed at causing damage to the arches only, the rights group said.

While lese majeste cases shot up under the ruling junta, convictions have declined in recent months, suggesting a change in attitude towards the strict defamation law.

“The prosecution of 112 cases has been very low this year, to the point that it’s nearly non-existent,” Pawinee Chumsri, a lawyer for the rights group that represented the defendants, said. 

She added that verdicts now tend towards acquittals or charges that carry lesser jail time.

“It’s somewhat good progress to see 112 cases are not easily prosecuted,” she said.

Yingcheep Atchanont, from the legal monitoring group iLaw, said there have been four acquittals this year and no new cases. 

Analysts said the law could be wielded differently under the reign of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took the throne in 2016 after the passing of his much-beloved father King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Sulak Sivaraksa, a historian who faced the charge after questioning accounts of an ancient elephant battle involving monarchs, said it was the new king’s “grace” that led to prosecutors declining to pursue the case further. 

But many are still serving time or in self-exile after being accused of the offence.

In August 2017 a prominent student activist was jailed for two and a half years for sharing a BBC Thai-language profile of HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Facebook.

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