By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - A Thai court sentenced on Tuesday the founder of a pro-royalist protest movement to 2 years in jail for insulting the monarchy by repeating comments deemed offensive made by a political rival.
Businessman Sondhi Limthongkul led so-called yellow shirt protests from 2005 to 2008 that undermined two governments led, or backed, by ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
"The accused had no reason to repeat comments made by a political rival in a public space as repeating them made those words known to an even wider audience," a judge told a Bangkok court.
Thailand's 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is often portrayed as an almost divine figure and, under tough lese-majeste laws, anything deemed an insult or a threat to the monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
Critics say the law can be misused by political factions or even individuals to discredit and silence opponents.
The case of Sondhi, a former media tycoon, showed that even supporters of the monarchy can ran afoul of the law, said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch.
"There seems to be no limit to who can be targeted by lese-majeste laws, it doesn't matter which side of the political equation the person belongs to," Sunai told Reuters.
Sondhi, who survived an assassination attempt by unidentified gunmen four years ago, was in court but did not comment.
The comments that landed him in trouble were first made in a speech by a rival activist, Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, a supporter of a pro-Thaksin "red-shirt" movement. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 for the remarks.
Sondhi has said in the past that he only repeated the comments to show the public that Daranee had committed lese-majeste in her speech.
He has also said that the charges against him originated from unidentified political rivals and that he had had no intention of breaking the lese-majeste laws.
Sondhi was granted bail after posting 500,000 baht ($16,000)in bail. His lawyer, Suwat Apaipakdi, said Sondhi would appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court.
Rivalry between supporters of the royalist-military establishment and their opponents, most of whom support Thaksin, has divided Thailand since the former telecoms tycoon was ousted in a 2006 military coup. ($1 = 31.2800 baht)
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Robert Birsel)