Three Thai royal insult prisoners freed after pardon

BANGKOK (AFP) - Three Thai women convicted of insulting the monarchy were released from jail Saturday (Aug 27) after receiving royal pardons, a human rights lawyer said, following years spent behind bars for violating the draconian law.

Thailand's lese majeste law is among the world's harshest, punishing any perceived criticism of the monarchy with up to 15 years per offence.

Cases have skyrocketed under the ultra-royalist junta that seized power in 2014, with more than 60 people facing trials since the power grab, mostly in military courts.

The law has also been interpreted with an increasingly broad scope. One man was arrested in December for making sarcastic comments about the king's late dog.

"Three women prisoners who were jailed for lese majeste were freed today after receiving a royal pardon," Weeranan Huadsri, from the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, told AFP.

But the reprieve, granted in the wake of Queen Sirikit's August 12 birthday, did not come until after the prisoners had already served years behind bars.

Daranee Charnchoengsilapakul, for instance, has spent more than five years in prison for speeches she delivered at political rallies.

As is common with lese majeste cases, she was denied bail throughout a trial, that ultimately saw her handed a 15-year sentence in 2011.

Known as "Da Torpedo" for her hard-hitting rhetoric, the activist was a fervent supporter of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra - the leader of a political faction loathed by the kingdom's military rulers.

Also released into the embrace of family members Saturday was Porntip Mankong, one of two young activists arrested in 2014 over a satirical play.

She had around two months left of her 2.5 year sentence.

Patiwat Saraiyaem, the university student also convicted over the "The Wolf Bride" play, was released earlier this month from a men's prison after receiving a similar pardon.

The third lese majeste prisoner set free Saturday was Thitinan Kaewjantranont, an elderly woman jailed for "inappropriate action against a portrait" of the Thai king.

The court that sentenced her in 2015 noted she suffered from mental health issues but said her behaviour was "so evil" it warranted jail time.

"These people have been punished for peaceful expression," said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia Director, noting the "choking" effect the law has on Thailand's media, arts and academia.

"Since the coup, the enforcement of this law has become more arbitrary and more severe," he added.

The ruling junta styles itself as a defender of the monarchy, a topic that has grown increasingly sensitive as 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej enters his twilight years.

Analysts say anxiety over the monarch's ailing health has exacerbated the past decade of political conflict, as competing elites wrestle for influence.

But open discussion of the monarchy and its future is impossible due to the royal insult law.