(AA) – Two Thai students were given prison sentences of two and a half years Monday for their roles in a satirical play at Bangkok’s Thammasat University that was deemed insulting to the Thai king.
A judge at Ratchada Criminal Court in Bangkok handed down the sentences to Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, a student and traditional singer, and Pornthip Munkong, 26, a political science graduate, for their roles in “The Wolf Bride.”
The play was performed in October on the 40th anniversary of the October 1973 military crackdown against pro-democracy student protests at the university. It featured a fictional king and his adviser and was set in a fictional kingdom
The play “damaged monarchy” said the presiding judge. “Both suspects violated the 112 law and receive a five-year prison sentence… reduced by half.”
The punishment was reduced because both accused had collaborated with investigators and pleaded guilty. Such a plea is customary in in criminal cases in Thailand where judges pressure the accused to do so in order to get a reduced jail term.
Thailand’s lese majeste law, one of the harshest in the world, punishes anyone seen to “criticize or defame the King, the Queen, the Heir or the Regent” with a jail term between 3 and 15 years.
Due to the severity of the law, The Anadolu Agency is unable to report on the exact plot of the play, or how it was deemed lese majeste for fear of falling foul of the law itself.
The sentence was immediately condemned by New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch as “another dark mark on Thailand’s already battered international reputation.”
“The junta has accelerated efforts to hunt down alleged lèse-majesté actions and statements, and prosecute people for peaceful expression of views, like conducting a play, posting on-line or making a speech,” Brad Adams, Asia director for the organization, said in a statement.
Friends and family members of Saraiyaem and Munkong – both handcuffed – were seen crying and hugging them after the verdict.
Saraiyaem – his legs also shackled – had told friends and reporters before the hearing that he was not afraid of jail.
“I hope that prison will teach me more about the meaning of freedom,” he said.
In an opinion piece in the Bangkok Post on Saturday, a representative of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights emphasized the plight of the two students.
“The court rejected their numerous requests for release on bail pending trial. Prison authorities have imposed severe restrictions on their cultural activities. Their books have been confiscated,” wrote Andrea Giorgetta, the federation’s Southeast Asia desk director.
He added that “the right to freedom of expression and the right to take part in cultural life” are guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Thailand.
Hours before Monday’s, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights – a local rights group – published a statement saying that the “U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had issued an opinion regarding the deprivation of liberty” of both accused and deemed it a violation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Thailand is a party to both treaties.
“Therefore, the detention is unlawful since it has stemmed from a peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression,” said the statement.
The number of cases of people detained for lèse-majesté, either awaiting trial or already sentenced, has jumped since the May 22 coup that overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
A recent instance saw freelance writer and translator Bundit Aneeya, 74, indicted Feb. 19 after he spoke about the different forms of monarchy during a public seminar.
The exact number of detainees has not been made public by Thai authorities, but FIDH estimates that 40 people have been arrested under the charge since the coup, with nine of them sentenced to jail terms.
Release on bail has systemically been denied for those charged, and all lèse-majesté trials are now held on camera in front of a military court.