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Thailand 19 January 2009

In major free speech violation, Australian writer gets three years in prison for lese majeste

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Harry Nicolaides in jail (©BBC)

Reporters Without Borders condemns the three-year prison sentence which Australian writer Harry Nicolaides received today from the Bangkok criminal court on a charge of lese majeste under article 112 of the criminal code for briefly alluding in a novel to the way King Bhumipol’s son treated one of his mistresses. Nicolaides pleaded guilty and asked the court to show clemency.

“Nicolaides was given the lightest sentence envisaged under the lese majeste law but this is nonetheless a serious violation of free expression.” Reporters Without Borders said. “The growing number of arrests on lese majeste charges and Nicolaides conviction today are disturbing developments that confirm our of fear of a dangerous politicisation of lese majeste, which is now apparently being used to silence people. We call for a review of Nicolaides’ case and his rapid release.”

Questioned by the BBC prior to the verdict, Nicolaides said: “Truth is stranger than fiction. This has to be a bad dream. It cannot possibly be real. I regret that my family is suffering and I want to apologize to all of them.”

Nicolaides, 41, originally pleaded not guilty when he appeared before the court on 21 November. Four requests for conditional release had been rejected since his arrest on 31 August 2008.

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Harry Nicolaides before his trial (©BBC)

The charge concerns just one short passage in his novel “Verisimilitude,” which was self-published in 2005 with a print-run of only 50 copies. His Australian lawyer, Mark Dean, said the case involved only three sentences in the 226-page book and no one was mentioned by name. Furthermore, the charge was based on the Thai translation, not the original English. “The reference to the monarchy is not even central to the book’s plot,” Dean added.

Nicolaides’ brother told Reporters Without Borders the family was “extremely distressed” by the outcome of the trial. They would do “everything they can to ensure that Harry remains strong, healthy and positive in the circumstances,” he said. Nicolaides now plans to request a royal pardon.

Political science professor Giles Ungpakorn meanwhile faces a lese majeste charge tomorrow in connection with his book “A Coup for the Rich,” which can be downloaded at no cost from his blog, http://www.wdpress.blog.co.uk. Ungpakorn yesterday launched a petition calling for free expression in Thailand and the abolition of the crime of lese majeste.

The police announced on 16 January that access to another 1,500 websites is being blocked because of content insulting to the monarchy. According to official sources, 3,800 sites have been blocked for this reason since 6 January and 400 are currently being investigated.

Internet user Suwicha Thakhor was arrested on 13 January after the police discovered that insulting comments about the king and his aides came from his computer. His request for conditional release was turned down three days later. Justice minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga said on 15 January that the principle of free expression sometimes had to be compromised for the same of “national security.”

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