BANGKOK (AP) — The founder of Thailand's royalist "yellow shirt" movement was sentenced Tuesday to two years in jail for defaming the monarchy by repeating offensive comments made by a political opponent.
A Bangkok appeals court found 65-year-old media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul guilty of lese majeste for quoting remarks made by an anti-establishment activist to a crowd at a protest in 2008. He was released after posting 500,000 baht ($15,935) in bail pending a planned appeal.
Thailand's lese majeste law is the world's harshest, mandating a jail term of three to 15 years. Tuesday's action overturned a criminal court's dismissal of the case against Sondhi on the grounds that he was only urging that the original speaker be prosecuted. The judge also cut his three-year sentence by a year because he provided helpful testimony.
Sondhi was the main leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy, also known as the yellow shirts, which led major street rallies in Bangkok that helped trigger a 2006 coup that toppled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and ignited an extended period of political instability in the country.
The yellow shirts, made up of mostly the urban elite, claimed Thaksin was corrupt and accused him of disrespecting the monarchy.
In 2008, the yellow shirts took to the streets again after a pro-Thaksin party was returned to power. In an effort to oust it, they occupied the prime minister's offices for three months and Bangkok's two airports for a week. Those actions led to charges of terrorism and other offenses being filed against Sondhi and his top colleagues, cases which are still going through the judicial process.
During a speech at one of the 2008 rallies, Sondhi quoted some remarks made by Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, a journalist-turned-activist who supported Thaksin. She was sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in prison for her comments.
Media operating in Thailand cannot publish the content of the alleged insults because doing so would also be a violation of the country's lese majeste laws.
The lese majeste law has traditionally been used as a political weapon in Thailand, where the monarchy is generally held in high respect. Although King Bhumibol Adulyadej has said he is not above criticism, anyone can file a complaint based on a trivial or vague remark. In one recent case, a Bangkok man was in jail for almost a year on a case brought by his vindictive brother on the basis of remarks allegedly made in the privacy of his own home. He was acquitted on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence.
The court ruled Tuesday that Sondhi had no need to quote Daranee's remarks, and by doing so in a public place might have spread them to people who would otherwise not have heard them.
"I only brought up (Daranee's remarks) to call for the authorities, both the military and the police, to prosecute a person who said such offensive comments, and to ask them how they could let these people defame the beloved monarchy of the entire country," Sondhi said after the verdict in an interview with his main media outlet, the Manager Online news website.
His lawyer, Suwat Apaipakdi, said Sondhi will appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
The appeals court on Wednesday also sentenced a Thai woman on lese majeste charges to five years to prison for posting anti-monarchy comments on a Thai web board in 2008. The verdict overturned a criminal court's dismissal of the case on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to pinpoint that the accused was the one who posted the comments.