By Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Protesters demanding the reform of Thailand's lese-majeste law held a religious ceremony on Wednesday beside the body of a man who died in prison a few months after being given 20 years for allegedly sending text messages offensive to the queen.
The case last November of Amphon Tangnoppaku, 61, whom the media nicknamed "Uncle SMS", fuelled a debate about the harsh sentences imposed in Thailand for insulting the monarchy.
The law on the monarchy, referred to as Article 112 in Thailand's criminal code, remains a highly sensitive issue in a country where King Bhumibol Adulyadej is seen by many as semi-divine.
Critics of lese-majeste say it is being used as a political weapon to stifle opponents, pointing to a huge jump in cases since the 2006 coup that toppled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was accused of republican leanings, which he denied.
David Streckfuss, a scholar who monitors lese-majeste law, said 397 cases were submitted to the criminal court between 2006 and 2009 compared with an average of four or five a year in the preceding 15 years.
Amphon, who was not a political activist and told the court during his trial he did not even know how to send an SMS, died in jail on Tuesday. He had been battling cancer and supporters said he should have been allowed out to get proper treatment.
"No one wants what happened to Uncle to happen, but it did, and it clearly demonstrates the problem with Article 112. If Uncle was granted bail, he would've been able to receive treatment in time," said Suda Rangupan, a linguistics professor who leads a campaign to amend the lese-majeste law.
"We have gathered 10,000 signatures from supporters for the amendment of Article 112. We expect to be able to present this list to parliament by the end of May," she said.
Amphon's wife, Rosmalin Tangnoppaku, and more than 200 supporters of the pro-Thaksin "red shirt" movement who have taken up his case performed a religious ceremony beside his closed coffin in front of the Criminal Court in central Bangkok on Wednesday.
"I want Uncle's death to be a case study for the building of justice in Thai society and for better medical treatment for prisoners," Rosalin said.
Thaksin's sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, said she has no plans to change the lese-majeste law.
Suda called on supporters to meet again in front of the Criminal Court on Thursday morning. Amphon's body would then be taken in procession to parliament and government offices before being cremated at a temple 25 km (15 miles) south of Bangkok.
"We will take Uncle to the various important landmarks, including parliament and Government House, to show that Uncle was an innocent man, a victim oppressed by the justice system," Suda said.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Sinsiri Tiwutanond; Editing by Alan Raybould and Ed Lane)