BANGKOK — A court in Thailand convicted and sentenced a recently elected lawmaker Wednesday to six years in prison for defaming the monarchy under a controversial law that guards the royal institution.
Human Rights Watch decried the ruling, saying it “violated her rights to freedom of expression protected under international human rights law.”
Rukchanok Srinork arrived for her court hearing in the capital, Bangkok, as her fellow lawmakers were convening in Parliament.
“I submitted a request to postpone (the hearing) because today the new parliament convenes for its first session, but the court refused. So I came to hear the verdict,” she told reporters, standing next to her party leader who was there to lend support.
She was charged over two posts she allegedly shared two years ago on X, the social media platform then known as Twitter. One tweet reportedly defamed the monarchy over links to a coronavirus vaccine and an anti-monarchy quote by 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot was allegedly retweeted.
Rukchanok was sentenced to three years on each count under Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code, known as lese majeste, which protects the monarchy. She was also convicted under the Computer Crime Act, whose broad provisions covering online activities have been criticized as a threat to freedom of expression.
Late Wednesday, the court granted her release on bail of 500,000 baht ($14,200). If it had been denied, she would have lost her lawmaker status immediately.
The parliamentarian denied she posted the tweets, calling the case against her “weak.” The plaintiff reportedly provided screenshots of the posts, but the police couldn’t find the links.
Rukchanok, 29, won a seat in May’s general election, part of a surprise victory for the progressive Move Forward Party that shook Thai politics. The win did not translate into power due to the party being ultimately out-maneuvered by influential conservative forces. She was initially a defender of the conservative establishment before switching sides and joining the progressive movement.
“The prosecution of an opposition member of parliament for two tweets is not only an appalling violation of free expression, but sends a chilling message to other outspoken opposition party members to keep silent,” Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Thursday in an emailed statement. “The Thai authorities should quash this sentence, and cease prosecuting other cases under the lese majeste law.”
Critics say the lese majeste law is often used to suppress political dissent. The law makes insulting the monarch, his immediate family and the regent punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
The monarchy and the laws that protect it have come under pressure in recent years. In 2020, tens of thousands of predominantly young people marched in several Thai cities, demanding constitutional reform and the abolition of the law against royal defamation. The government’s response was an unprecedented slew of prosecutions.
The advocacy group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights says that since early 2020, more than 200 people — many of them student activists — have been charged with violating Article 112.