A Thai criminal court sentenced a 61-year-old man to 20 years in prison Wednesday for sending text messages deemed offensive to the country's queen.
The court found Amphon Tangnoppaku guilty on four counts under lese majeste and computer crime laws, sentencing him to five years imprisonment for each charge, to be served consecutively.
Lese majeste is the crime of insulting a monarch, and Thailand's laws against it are the most severe in the world. Even repeating the details of an alleged offense is illegal.
The court said Amphon sent offensive text messages in May 2010 to a personal secretary of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Amphon denied the charges, saying he was unfamiliar with the text message function on mobile phones and did not know the recipient of the message.
Lese majeste arrests and convictions in Thailand spike during times of instability, when the law is used by political rivals to harass opponents. That has been the case since a 2006 military coup ushered in political upheaval that has at times spiraled into violent street confrontations.
Statistics obtained by The Associated Press from the Office of the Attorney General show 36 lese majeste cases were sent for prosecution in 2010, compared to 18 in 2005 and just one in 2000.
Asked for comment, the U.S. State Department said it maintains its highest respect for the Thai monarchy and the Thai judicial system, but at the same time, "we also believe that people around the world should be afforded freedom of expression."
Amnesty International's Benjamin Zawacki condemned Wednesday's verdict, accusing the government of suppressing freedom of expression.
"Thailand has every right to have a (lese majeste) law, but its current form and usage place the country in contravention of its international legal obligations," Zawacki told The Associated Press. "Repression remains the order of the day in Thailand on freedom of expression, and Amphon is a political prisoner."
Amphon was arrested August 3, 2010, and detained at Bangkok Remand Prison without bail after being indicted by the public prosecutor for lese majeste.
Before his arrest, he had lived with his wife, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren in a rented room in Samut Prakan province, on the outskirts of Bangkok. He is retired and receives a 3,000-baht ($100) monthly allowance from his children. He has mouth cancer and has required regular medical care since 2007.