Rights groups slam Thailand for jailing businessman for 25 years for lese majeste

BANGKOK (AFP) - Rights groups on Wednesday lambasted a Thai military court for jailing a businessman for 25 years for making allegedly defamatory Facebook posts about the monarchy, one of the toughest known sentences for lese majeste.

The sentencing of 58-year-old Theinsutham Suthijittaseranee comes as concerns mount over a bid by the nation's junta leader to replace martial law that has blanketed the kingdom for months with new security measures retaining sweeping powers for the military.

Theinsutham was sentenced on Tuesday to 10 years for each of five counts of posting messages on the social networking website deemed to be defamatory to the Thai royal family, his lawyer told AFP. The sentence was halved as the defendant pleaded guilty, but it is still among the toughest sentences yet for insulting the monarchy.

"The 25-year sentence is one of the harshest we are aware of. It is particularly problematic given that it was issued by a military tribunal," Mr Sam Zarifi, regional director for legal rights group the International Commission of Jurists, told AFP. "Given the defendant's age, it comes close to being a life sentence."

Amnesty International condemned the conviction as "preposterous" and called for an end to lese majeste prosecutions, which have surged since royalist generals toppled the remnants of the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May last year.

Domestic and international media routinely self-censor reporting of the Thai monarchy, including royal defamation trials, lest they too fall foul of the draconian law, which carries up to 15 years in jail for every count of insulting, defaming or threatening the monarchy.

Critics of the law say it is used as a weapon against the political enemies of the royalist elite.

Freedom of expression and dissent have been smothered by martial law imposed by the Thai junta since last May's coup.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said he had asked Thailand's revered but elderly King Bhumibol Adulyadej for permission to lift martial law.

But rights groups have expressed alarm at General Prayuth's move to replace it with sweeping security powers under Section 44 of an interim constitution governing the kingdom.

Under the section, Gen Prayuth can unilaterally issue orders to suppress "any act that undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or the administration of state affairs".

Mr Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the section effectively grants the junta leader unfettered power and "will mark Thailand's deepening descent into dictatorship".

Thailand has been mired in political turmoil since populist politician Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a coup in 2006.

The Bangkok elite - flanked by the military and swathes of the kingdom's judiciary - has spent the intervening years trying to unpick the electoral success of parties linked to Thaksin, culminating in last year's coup.

The army says it had to intervene to end bloody protests against the Shinawatra clan, accusing the family of poisoning Thailand with corruption and cronyism and duping their rural poor heartlands with populist policies.

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