Thai student leader pleads guilty to lese majeste

Activists wearing masks of Thai human rights activist Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa during a demonstration in Bangkok.
Activists wearing masks of Thai human rights activist Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa during a demonstration in Bangkok.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - A prominent student leader on Tuesday (Aug 15) pleaded guilty to defaming Thailand's royal family by sharing a news story about the kingdom's new monarch on Facebook, his lawyer said.

Jatupat "Pai Dao Din" Boonpatararaksa, 25, is the latest anti-junta activist to be hit with the country's draconian lese majeste law which bans any criticism of the monarchy.

The law, which carries up to 15 years in jail per charge, has been wielded with increased ferocity under Thailand's military rulers.

He has been held in custody since his arrest in December for sharing a profile of King Maha Vajiralongkorn written by the BBC's Thai-language service in London.

On Tuesday he changed his plea to guilty, his legal team said, a stance that usually trims the sentence of alleged offenders.

"After Jatupat consulted with his family, he pleaded guilty this morning before the court for committing the alleged wrongdoing as charged," Mr Krisadang Nootjaras, one of his lawyers, told AFP.

The court in northeastern Khon Kaen province is expected to sentence him later on Tuesday, he added.

Those charged with lese majeste in Thailand are almost always convicted, often behind closed doors.

Many people arrested for the crime plead guilty hoping for a reduced sentence.

The severity of the charge makes real scrutiny of the wealthy and powerful royal family all but impossible inside the kingdom - including by the media.

Use of the lese majeste law has generated widespread international criticism, including from the United Nations.

A UN report earlier this year noted that the conviction rate under the law had gone from 75 per cent before the 2014 coup to 96 per cent last year.

Many of those jailed have been handed record-breaking sentences as long as 30 years, often for comments made on social media.

Jatupat hails from Thailand's northeast, a poor and rural region where anti-military sentiment runs high.

He was awarded a prominent human rights award in South Korea earlier this year.

King Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne after the death in October of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for seven decades.

He has yet to attain his father's widespread popularity.