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Thai-born US citizen jailed for lèse majesté posts

(SEAPA/IFEX) - On 8 December 2011, a Thai-born American citizen, Joe Gordon, was sentenced to two and a half years in jail by Bangkok's Criminal Court for insulting the Thai monarchy.

Gordon, whose Thai name is Lerpong Wichaikhammat, was charged with lèse majesté under Section 14 of the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) and Article 112 of the Penal Code. After insisting on his innocence several times, he eventually pled guilty, leading the court to halve his sentence from an initial five-year verdict.

His alleged crime was translating sections of a banned biography of the Thai monarch by Paul Handley, entitled "The King Never Smiles", and posting them online while living in the United States. Upon his return to Thailand for medical treatment in May this year, he was arrested and held without bail.

Led shackled and barefoot into the court today, the 55-year old thanked the more than 50 supporters crowded into the courtroom, including representatives from the US State Department, European embassies, foreign reporters and non-governmental organizations.

After his sentence was read he told the court "in Thailand there are many laws that don't allow you to express opinions, but we don't have that in America," according to the BBC.

Speaking to the media after the verdict, US Consul-General Elisabeth Pratt described the 30-month sentence as "severe" and pledged ongoing support to the US citizen. "We continue to have full respect for the Thai monarchy but we also support the right to freedom of expression as an internationally recognised human right," she said.

The high-profile case has drawn attention to Thailand's worsening record on freedom of expression, and comes in the midst of an ongoing crackdown on online speech.

The defence will not appeal the verdict, but instead apply for a royal pardon in one month. Pardons have traditionally been granted to foreign citizens convicted under Thailand's lèse majesté laws - the most severe in the world.

The recent case of Ampon Tangnoppakul, a 61-year old grandfather sentenced to 20 years for text messages deemed insulting to the monarchy, has led to increased controversy and international attention over the laws' application.

The Bangkok Post reported Sunday that the issue has deeply divided Thai society, with some political factions calling for the repeal of the law while others argue for greater censorship. They say the public has expressed sympathy and renewed concern over what is perceived as an unnecessarily harsh sentence and a deeply flawed legal process.

"The Nation"'s Pornpimol Kanchanalak also expressed concerns in her column on 4 December about an overzealous application of lèse majesté law, which she believes could damage the very institution it is designed to protect.

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