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By Aubrey Belford
BANGKOK, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Just minutes after being locked up for 30 years for insulting Thailand's monarchy, Pongsak Sriboonpeng described what he thought was the cause of his capture: a poorly chosen Facebook friend.
For at least a year, the self-described "red shirt" supporter of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had posted angry commentary on the social networking site, including six postings that were later deemed to have defamed the royal family.
He had also made an online acquaintance: a young man who seemed to share his views, and who invited him to visit. So Pongsak took a bus to meet him.
As the bus idled at a station in the northern province of Phitsunalok on December 30, soldiers and police swarmed the vehicle and took him to a Bangkok army base. Within days, Pongsak said, his Facebook friend emerged in the real world - among the officers interrogating him.
"He appeared and said, 'Don't you remember me?'" Pongsak told Reuters in early August, as he peered through the thick metal mesh of his holding cell beneath Bangkok's military court.
Pongsak's sentence - an initial 60 years, halved after he pleaded guilty - is the harshest of its kind recorded in the country's history. It is part of a dramatic rise in arrests and convictions in Thailand for "lèse majesté," or insulting the monarchy. The crackdown has been enabled by sweeping new powers the military granted itself after a May 2014 coup, and what government officials say is a junta-ordered campaign to more vigorously police online offences.
Many of the suspects arrested since the coup were detained without charge, held by the army without access to lawyers and, in many cases, forced to hand over passwords to their online accounts, according to defense lawyers and a legal watchdog group monitoring these cases. Both Pongsak and a woman detained in a separate lèse majesté case said they were forced to reveal their passwords to their interrogators.
Military courts, which since the coup hear many lèse majesté cases, are handing down sentences of as many as 10 years for a single offense. When it comes to online platforms such as Facebook, multiple postings deemed critical of the monarchy can earn someone 10 years for each comment, served consecutively. That has led to record-breaking sentences.
Since the military takeover 15 months ago, 53 people have been investigated for royal insults, at least 40 of whom allegedly posted or shared comments online, according to iLaw, a Bangkok-based legal monitoring group. The majority of these cases have resulted in charges. In the seven years and five months prior, 75 people were investigated, 27 of them for online activity.
Reuters reviewed online postings for which two Thais pleaded guilty and were convicted of lèse majesté: six by Pongsak and five by another man who got 50 years for his comments. The postings included claims about the king and other members of the royal family that the court ruled to be false and defamatory. Some of the postings included profanity and ridicule. One posting was clearly false. Another was based on longstanding rumors.
None of the postings included threats of violence toward the monarchy or appeals to abolish it. Since the arrests of the two men, all of the postings deemed offensive by authorities have been taken down.
"The tempo of the arrests and prosecutions, and the severity of the sentences have gone up significantly," said Sam Zarifi, regional director for Asia and the Pacific at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva-based human rights group. The 50-year and 60-year prison sentences were "egregious - there's no other word for it," Zarifi added. Although the military said these cases dealt with issues of national security, "they haven't suggested there were threats of violence," he said.
The targets of the law are increasingly ordinary people, many of them red-shirt supporters of Thaksin, rather than prominent individuals, said David Streckfuss, an independent academic in the Thai city of Khon Kaen who researches lèse majesté. In Thailand, the royalist establishment backed by the military has repeatedly tried to neutralize the political machine of Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, who were both elected prime minister with broad rural support, only to be toppled by military coups.
Critics of the junta say lèse majesté laws, often seen by the world as a quirk of Thai society, are being wielded by the generals as an instrument to crush dissent. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly called for stronger prosecution of lèse majesté since taking power in a military coup in May last year.
The army said it seized control to end a decade of sometimes violent political turmoil. Thaksin has frequently been accused by his opponents of seeking power at the expense of the revered monarchy, a charge he denies.
The health of 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who the palace recently said was treated for "water on the brain," has added to the political uncertainty shrouding Thailand since the coup. So has a recent bombing in downtown Bangkok that killed 20 people and injured more than 100.
Major General Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, a spokesman for the government, said the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra had not properly pursued lèse majesté cases, which he called a "national security issue."
Werachon would not say if the increased policing of lèse majesté cases was related to the political turmoil in Thailand, except for one allusion. "If someone wants to be number one in Thailand, you need to destroy the existing number one institution," he said.
Asked if he was referring to Thaksin, he said: "I'm not saying anyone, I did not say anyone. But if you want to be on the top of the list, be number one, you need to topple, you need to get rid of number one."
Streckfuss said the more severe punishments being meted out in lèse majesté cases should be seen as a bid to shore up the power of the junta - and the traditionalist elite it represents - amid anxiety over the king's health. "It's trying to send the message that this is a taboo subject and that discussion of the monarchy will be punished at all costs," he said.
The number of lèse majesté cases in Thailand has spiked during a period in which the military, which has staged a dozen successful coups since 1932, has enjoyed a level of control not seen in decades. Many lèse majesté arrests since the coup have been carried out under martial law, which was in place until April and allowed the army to detain people for up to seven days without charging them, according to iLaw.
The pace of lèse majesté arrests has slowed since martial law was revoked and they are now handled by police. But the focus has moved to the courts, where the pace of trials and convictions has picked up, iLaw said.
Article 44 of the junta's interim constitution, a provision that was put in place after martial law ended, still allows for suspects to be detained for seven days without being charged, according to iLaw. For now, it is not being used for arrests, the organization said.
Under Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code, anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent" faces up to 15 years in jail. The 2007 Computer Crime Act, which was passed on the back of the 2006 coup that deposed Thaksin, provides for sentences of up to five years for offences against "the Kingdom's security."
The military courts that are now trying lèse majesté cases, like that of Pongsak, have been criticized by the United Nations for failing "to meet international human rights standards, including the right to a fair trial." U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said last month that the trials were generally closed with "very little scrutiny" and that in most cases the accused were "denied bail. So they are held for a prolonged period, certainly a lot of pressure is applied on them to make their guilty pleas," she said.
As was the case under civilian rule, those accused of lèse majesté often plead guilty in the hope their sentence will be reduced and they may receive a royal pardon some time in the future. Both iLaw and ICJ's Zarifi said they weren't aware of a royal pardon being granted since the coup to someone convicted of lèse majesté.
Prior to the coup, "police needed to gather evidence before they arrested someone," said Sasinan Thamnithinan from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which has defended the majority of people accused of lèse majesté since the coup, including Pongsak.
"But the military has been able to do anything," she said. "The military arrests you, gets your Facebook and other passwords, accesses them, prints things out and gets you to sign that it's yours. After that they go to the court, get a warrant, and then they send you to the police."
In Pongsak's case, his lawyers also accuse authorities of using a fake Facebook profile to lure him into a trap. He was arrested after he defied a junta summons to hand himself in to the army.
Officers at the base of the 11th Army Circle, where Pongsak said he was initially detained, confirmed that lèse majesté suspects were held there in late 2014, but said they had no knowledge of Pongsak's arrest. The police Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD), which handles online lèse majesté cases, declined requests for interviews.
Major General Werachon, the government spokesman, said he was unaware of Pongsak's claims that he was tricked by the authorities. Asked about accusations by lawyers involved in lèse majesté cases that authorities had seized passwords from suspects without warrants, he said: "I don't think it is the case that happens at the moment."
"If you ask me if it's fair game to intercept or gain access to criminals, I think it's fair game," he said.
In 2014, Prayuth created a joint committee on national security, comprising the army, law enforcement and government ministries, which also deals with lèse majesté offences. Better coordination between various agencies has meant cases are handled more swiftly, former Minister of Information and Communication Technology Pornchai Rujiprapa told Reuters in an interview last month, before leaving his position as part of a cabinet reshuffle.
He said Thailand has a longstanding 30-person TCSD team that is based in the Information and Communication Technology Ministry and operates around the clock, scanning online postings and following up complaints from the public on cyber crimes, including royal defamation. The team hasn't expanded, Pornchai said. Instead, it is better coordination that has yielded more arrests, he said.
"Beforehand, the usual way of doing things was everyone separately going about their own tasks," Pornchai said.
The TCSD declined to say how many web sites have been blocked for alleged crimes of lèse majesté since the coup. In the period between the military takeover in May and December last year, the government blocked 1,200 web sites on the grounds they carried content violating lèse majesté, local newspaper Matichon reported, citing Pornchai.
Earlier this year, the junta's cabinet drafted a suite of eight digital economy and cyber-security bills. The proposed legislation has been held up amid criticism from civil society groups that the bills would clear the way for mass online surveillance and grant authorities the power to access information on electronic devices without a court order.
'I TOLD HIM TO SIGN'
For those at the receiving end of the crackdown, justice has been swift. The arrest of Thiansutham Suthijitseranee, 58, in December started when a woman wandered to the front of his Bangkok home and asked for directions, according to his wife.
As Thiansutham emerged to help, men jumped the fence and grabbed him. Both he and his wife were taken to the Bangkok base of the 11th Army Circle, the same base where Pongsak said he was interrogated.
There, the couple was made by soldiers and police to sign documents giving the authorities access to their online accounts, Thiansutham's wife said. She was later released without charge.
A warrant for Thiansutham's arrest was only obtained on December 22, four days after his initial detention, according to lawyer Sasinan, who also handled his case.
"I told him to sign the documents," Thiansutham's wife said. "I thought that if we cooperated then the charges wouldn't be too severe."
That was not to be the case. In late March, the military court in Bangkok sentenced Thiansutham to 50 years in prison, 10 years for each of five Facebook postings, reduced to 25 after he pleaded guilty. At the time, it was the longest recorded sentence handed down for lèse majesté.
That record was exceeded twice on August 7. That day, a military court in the northern city of Chiang Mai sentenced a 29-year-old hotel worker to 56 years, reduced to 28 after she pleaded guilty, for seven Facebook postings.
Everything was done "according to the law," said Werachon, when asked about criticism of the sentences handed out in the Chiang Mai case, as well as those of Pongsak and Thiansutham. "This is not a product of the military system... If you commit a crime you have to be brought before the legal process."
On the same day as the Chiang Mai verdict, Pongsak's final hearing was held in the building that houses the military court, a short walk from the gilded spires of Bangkok's Grand Palace. Cuffed by his ankles and wrists, Pongsak was escorted into a small courtroom and lined up on a bench with four other suspects at earlier stages of separate lèse majesté cases. Reporters were then asked to leave for the closed hearing.
In less than an hour, all five men emerged clattering from the room. Pongsak had pleaded guilty and his 60-year sentence, commuted to 30 years on his confession, came almost immediately. Pongsak, who said he is HIV positive, made a plea for leniency. The judges rejected it.
"Well, it went as I expected," he said, as military officials shuffled him toward a basement cell.
(Additional reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall in Bangkok. Editing by Peter Hirschberg.)
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