BANGKOK — The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said Tuesday it is appalled at the long prison sentences given to people convicted in Thailand of insulting the monarchy, and is calling for the immediate release of all people jailed for exercising freedom of expression.
Its statement, released in Geneva, comes just four days after Thai military courts in separate cases gave prison sentences of 30 and 28 years, respectively, to a man and a woman for posting messages on Facebook found to have violated the lese majeste law.
Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said the U.N. agency is urging the Thai government to amend the law, which it described as "vague and broad," to meet international human rights standards, declaring that it should not be used to smother debate on public issues, even if criticism of the head of state is involved.
Both of the accused in Friday's cases were originally given substantial sentences that were halved because they pleaded guilty. The sentences were the longest in memory handed down for the non-violent crime under what is widely known as Article 112 of the Criminal Code. The U.N. statement also mentioned a case in May where a businessman was given a sentence of 25 years — halved from 50 — for comments on the monarchy he posted on the Internet.
A spokesman for Thailand's ruling junta said the long sentences were "just" and only seemed harsh because "the previous administration neglected" to enforce the law. The military ousted an elected government in a coup last year, and lese majeste cases were moved from civilian to military courts.
The U.N. human rights agency charged that the handling of lese majeste cases does not allow the right to a fair trial.
"The public has been barred from entry and in many instances there is no possibility of appeal," it said. "International law requires that trials of civilians by military courts should be exceptional, and military trials must afford all due process guarantees provided for under international human rights law."
Discussion of the monarchy is an extremely sensitive subject, since the law mandates prison terms of three to 15 years, and anyone can file a case. The law has usually been used as a way to harass opponents in political disputes.
In June, the junta banned an event by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to discuss the law itself. Police told the club the junta said its panel should be canceled for reasons of security. A letter sent by police to the FCCT said the event "would sow disunity in Thai society, and encourage people to break the law and stir unrest."