BANGKOK: Bangkok’s military court on Tuesday sentenced 10 people from an “anti-monarchy network” to up to five years in jail over audio recordings deemed to defame the royal family under Thailand’s controversial lese majeste law.
The group, including four women, were charged between January and March with Section 112 of the Thai criminal code under which anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
They were also prosecuted under the Computer Crimes Act, a charge which carries up to five years in jail and has increasingly been used in conjunction with lese majeste charges as the authorities step up patrols scanning for critical content online.
Eight of so-called “Banpodj Network”, a name derived from their Facebook page, were originally handed 10-year jail terms while two were sentenced to six years imprisonment.
But the sentences were halved due to their confessions, said a judge at the military court.
The majority were “found guilty of insulting the monarchy and publishing false information by computer”, said one of a panel of three judges, while the pair facing the slightly shorter sentence were found guilty of “supporting” them.
Two others accused denied the charges against them and will face a separate hearing.
Most of the group are aged between 35 and 65 and live in Bangkok, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights which is representing some of them.
In February Thai police arrested the alleged ringleader of the network after offering a widely publicised 200,000 baht ($6,100) reward for his capture. Hasadin Uraipraiwan, 64, was eventually tracked down to a hotel after going on the run for nearly two weeks.
Thai authorities say the Bandpodj Network also distributed audio recordings on CDs that insulted the Thai monarchy.
The group’s Facebook page, which has more than 100,000 likes and shows a photo of Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, describes itself as a place where “the truth can be understood if you find it”. It was last updated in December 2014.
Both Thai and international media must heavily self-censor when covering Thailand’s monarchy — even repeating details of charges of perceived lese majeste offences could mean breaking the law.
Royal defamation prosecutions have surged since former army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha seized power in May 2014 and critics say that the law has been politicised to target opponents of the coup.
According to iLaw, a local rights group that monitors such cases, there were just two ongoing prosecutions for royal defamation before the takeover. Now that number is at least 56.
In June a Thai man was sentenced to more than three years in jail for lese majeste despite having a history of mental illness.
Others recent cases include a 58-year-old man sentenced to 25 years in prison for the content of five Facebook posts and a bookseller jailed for an alleged offence back in 2006.