A leading international rights group called on Thailand's government Saturday to amend harsh laws aimed at protecting the country's monarchy, after a Bangkok court sentenced a man last month to 20 years in prison for sending text messages deemed offensive to the queen.
Sixty-one-year-old Amphon Tangnoppakul was sentenced Nov. 23 for sending four text messages last year to a secretary of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The secretary filed an official complaint against Amphon, who was detained by police in August 2010.
Thailand's so-called lese majeste laws are the harshest in the world. Those found guilty of defaming the monarchy face three to 15 years behind bars under Article 112 of the constitution, and the Computer Crimes Act enacted in 2007 contains lese majeste provisions that have enabled prosecutors to multiply sentences.
Lese majeste prosecutions increased dramatically during Abhisit's time in office, and Human Rights Watch said his successor, Yingluck Shinawatra, has fared no better.
"The severity of penalties being meted out for lese majeste offenses in Thailand is shocking," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The new government seems to be responding to questions about its loyalty to the monarchy by filing countless lese majeste charges."
Thai officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Last week, Minister of Information and Communication Technology Anudith Nakornthap said Facebook users who "share" or "like" content that insults the Thai monarchy are committing a crime. Even repeating the details of an alleged offense is illegal.
Anudith said last month that Thai authorities had asked Facebook to remove 86,000 websites between August and November because of alleged lese majeste content.
Human Rights Watch cited one recent social media case _ the Sept. 1 arrest of computer programmer Surapak Phuchaisaeng, who was detained for allegedly posting pictures, audio clips and messages deemed insulting to the royal family on Facebook. The rights group said the public prosecutor told the court that Surapak "does not deserve mercy and should be severely punished."
"The heavy-handed enforcement of lese majeste laws has a devastating impact on freedom of expression in Thailand," Adams said. "A choke-hold on freedom of expression is being created in the name of protecting the monarchy."