BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai political activist was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison on Tuesday for publicly insulting the monarchy, the latest in an extraordinary rise in cases under the world's strictest lèse-majesté laws.
The number of prosecutions under the laws has grown sharply, as have jail terms, during the country's on-off political crisis that has been simmering since former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 military coup.
The Criminal Court initially handed a 15-year term to Surachai Danwattananusorn, also known as Surachai Sae Dan, after finding him guilty on three counts of lèse-majesté. It halved the sentence because he pleaded guilty.
"He led the public to believe that the monarchy was the cause of Thailand's political conflict," the judge said. "This is considered an extreme offence, inciting hatred.
Surachai is a leader of Red Siam, a radical breakaway faction of the "red shirt" protest movement, which supports the now-exiled Thaksin and broadly backs the current government led Thaksin's sister Yingluck.
Dressed in orange prison fatigues, Surachai showed no emotion as the judge read the verdict.
He was arrested a year ago and admitted to insulting the monarchy in speeches at rallies in three cities in 2010, when Thailand was going through another bout of political unrest under a previous government opposed by the red shirts.
Successive governments have ignored international calls to reform the tough lèse-majesté laws, a highly sensitive issue in a country where the ailing 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is regarded as semi-divine.
Recent cases have included a U.S. citizen jailed for two-and-a-half years for posting a web link to a book about the king that is banned in Thailand and an elderly man imprisoned for 20 years for sending text messages deemed disparaging of Queen Sirikit.
Surachai's group, which the pro-Thaksin red shirts have severed links with, has accused Thailand's royalist establishment of being behind the bloodless coup and undermining democracy by intervening behind the scenes.
The outspoken former communist guerrilla has spent time in prison before for his political activities. He was freed in 1988 after receiving a royal pardon. Critics have accused Red Siam of having a republican agenda, which it denies.
(Reporting by Aukkapon Niyomyat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Martin Petty; Editing by Alan Raybould and Jonathan Thatcher)