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Thai Junta Critic: Prison 'Like Hell on Earth'

Siraphop Kornaroot poses for a photo moments after his release from jail in Bangkok, June 11, 2019.

"Prison is like hell on earth. There is no human dignity in the cell," says Siraphop, who adds he spent most of his days confined to a sweltering 5-by-12-meter room with 40 to 50 other men. "No food. No games. No books. Only drinking water."

"Prison proves if you are a fighter," says Siraphop Kornaroot.

The 55-year-old Thai poet and author should know, having spent the past five years in a Bangkok jail without having been convicted of a crime. Released on bail in June, he still faces up to 45 years behind bars if found guilty at his long-running trial, currently taking place in a closed military court.

Officially, Siraphop stands accused of breaking the country's Computer Crimes Act and strict lèse majesté law for a trio of Facebook posts and cartoons allegedly skewering Thailand's revered royal family. But the political activist is convinced that the old posts were dredged up to punish him for his true "crime" — criticizing the military junta that had wrested power from an elected government about a month before his arrest on June 25, 2014.

Siraphop, whose pen name Rungsira roughly means "born with strength," tells VOA he turned out to be a fighter.

"Prison is like hell on earth. There is no human dignity in the cell," says Siraphop, who adds he spent most of his days confined to a sweltering 5-by-12-meter room with 40 to 50 other men. "No food. No games. No books. Only drinking water."

As a political prisoner, even conversation was denied him. He says inmates who ventured to chat with him were quickly reassigned to other cells and that he was relegated to the prison's library detail to keep his interactions with others to a minimum.

"They try to isolate the political prisoners," he says. "This is what life was like. Every political prisoner is treated like this."

Siraphop believes he could have won an early release with a royal pardon had he confessed, but says he never considered the option.

"I wouldn't do that because I want to prove that I am innocent, that I never said anything bad about the royal family. I am anti-coup d'état, not anti-royalist," he says.

"I think what I did was right, because otherwise how can our children live in this kind of society if I don't stand up for myself and for my belief in civil disobedience? I don't think it's right that the military took power. I think people like us, the citizens, should have the power in our hands. It's not right that we citizens are arrested for expressing our civil rights. Do we really think that this should be the standard in society?"

The junta denied Siraphop's requests for bail seven times before finally relenting, a few weeks after the U.N. Human Rights Council's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion slamming his arrest and closed-door trial in military court and calling for his immediate release.

Siraphop credits the working group's attention for his freedom, however tenuous, but he also believes the timing of their opinion was in his favor. A pro-military civilian government had just taken over from the junta after tainted elections in March, and was eager to prove to the world that Thailand was back to democratic ways.

Siraphop and other rights activists are yet to be convinced.

In the weeks after the vote, the leaders of the 2014 coup assumed the top posts in the new government. The Constitution that the junta drafted and enacted also remains in place, as do some of the security decrees it issued.

Physical assaults on the military's most vocal critics by gangs of armed and masked men have also picked up since the election. Dissidents taking shelter in neighboring countries have either disappeared or been forced to return home, and opposition lawmakers have come under sustained legal attack.

Siraphop's release on bail is "one piece of good news at a time when there are strong indications that authorities haven't shifted their approach," says Katherine Gerson, Thailand campaigner for Amnesty International.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights says that during the junta's five-year run, 169 people were charged with lèse majesté, 144 with computer crimes for expressing political opinions, and 121 with sedition.

While most have been released or were never arrested, about 20 political prisoners remain behind bars, according to iLaw, another local legal rights group. All but one of those are accused of lèse majesté.

"And so there's a considerable amount of work this new government must do both to reverse the legacy of some of the worst excesses of restrictions during the coup period, but also to look at the body of laws which, previous to the coup, were being used to silence opposition voices," Gerson says.

In the meantime, Siraphop, a single father of three, is focused on fighting his charges and putting the pieces of his life back together.

The Justice Ministry is in the process of transferring his case to a civilian court, but the arrest ruined his home design business and his bank accounts remain frozen. His two youngest children were forced to drop out of school, one to work, the other to take up vocational training.

Siraphop says he is now shadowed by plain-clothes police around the clock but still takes to social media to share his thoughts on the state of Thai politics. Having endured one long stint in prison, he is stoic about the prospects of another.

"I don't care if they come to arrest me again. Hell is not that scary anymore," he says. "I am not fighting to win, but I want to fight to make a better life for my children."