US citizen jailed for insulting Thai monarchy

 

A US citizen was jailed for two-and-a-half years today for insulting the Thai monarchy, prompting the US Embassy to speak out at the severity of the sentence and say it supported the freedom of expression everywhere in the world.

Thai-born Lerpong Wichaikhammat, 55, had pleaded guilty in October to using the internet to disseminate information that insulted the monarchy, charges stemming from material posted on his blog in the United States, where he has citizenship.

He was arrested in May during a visit to Thailand.

"The defendant is found guilty ... The court sentenced him to five years in prison. But he pleaded guilty. That makes the case easier, so the court decided to cut it in half to 2 years and six months," a judge said at the criminal court in Bangkok.

Thailand has the world's toughest lese-majeste laws protecting its monarch. The number of cases has jumped in recent years and sentences have become harsher, coinciding with a period of political turbulence in the country.

Lerpong's lawyer, Anon Nampa, said there would be no appeal against the verdict. "One month from now, we'll submit a request for a royal pardon," he added.

Other foreigners who have fallen foul of the lese-majeste law in recent years have tended to spend a short period in jail before being pardoned. Thais have not got off so lightly, one recently getting 20 years for text messages deemed offensive.

Elisabeth Pratt, consul general at the US Embassy in Bangkok, said Joe Gordon - the name Lerpong goes by - was an American citizen and would continue to get consular help.

"We're very concerned over the severity of the sentence that has been imposed on Joe Gordon. We support the freedom of expression here in Thailand and internationally throughout the world," she told reporters at the court.

Lerpong was also accused of providing a web link to a biography by an American author of 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej that is banned in Thailand, where many people regard the king as almost divine.

Before the verdict was read out, Lerpong was allowed to speak to reporters.

"I'm not Thai, I'm American. I was just born in Thailand. I hold an American passport. In Thailand there are many laws that don't allow you to express opinions but we don't have that in America," he said.

Critics say the law is being abused to discredit activists and politicians.

The generals who overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 cited his alleged disrespect for the monarchy among other reasons.

"Personally I don't know Thaksin and usually I don't get involved in politics," Lerpong said. "I'm proud to be American."

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