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2 Students Given Jail Terms for Defaming Thai Royal Family

Thai student Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, left, and activist Porntip Mankong, 26, are escorted by prison security guards after their verdict at the Criminal Court in Bangkok, Feb. 23, 2015.

A Thai criminal court Monday sentenced two university students to jail terms for staging a play in 2013 that judges ruled had offended the Thai monarchy.

The judge, who set an initial term of five years, reduced the sentence to two and a half years each, after the two theater activists pleaded guilty.

Rights groups and activists have criticized Monday’s sentencing, with the New York-based Human Rights Watch calling the conviction a “blow to freedom of expression in Thailand.”

Family members in the packed court room wept after the sentencing was handed down to Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Porntip Mankong, 26, for their roles in “The Wolf Bride,” a satire set in a fictional kingdom.

Series of events

The play was part of a series of events marking the 40th anniversary of a student uprising against the country’s then-ruling military dictatorship.

Both pleaded with the court, saying they were without any previous convictions.

The father of Patiwat, Ayakarn Saraiyaem, had hoped the court would show leniency. Ayakarn said he was upset by the verdict given that both students were without prior convictions and they had no intention to insult the monarchy.

A small group of student supporters gathered outside the court and sang activist songs.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement, condemning the verdict, and called the court's decision “another serious blow to freedom of expression in Thailand" and a “dark mark” on Thailand’s already battered international reputation.

The two activists were convicted under Thailand’s tough lese-majeste laws designed to protect senior members of the Thai royal family from defamation, insults and threats.

The legislation allows for sentencing of up to 15 years or more for those found guilty.

Growing number of cases

The case adds to Thailand’s already growing list of people sentenced under lese-majeste laws.

Thai online news website, Prachatai news, reported more than 20 cases deemed defamatory of the royal family have been brought before the courts amid Thailand’s political turmoil and protests since 2006.

Those facing charges include speakers at political protests who now face 15-year jail terms and a magazine editor currently appealing a 10-year jail sentence. Others have been detained for posting messages and photos deemed defamatory to the royal family.

But analysts said the law has often been open to abuse by both sides of the political landscape.

Local and international criticism followed sentencing in 2011 of a 61-year-old grandfather, accused of sending text messages deemed offensive to the queen.

The man, Ampon Tangnopakul, pleaded his innocence in court weeping before the judge of his loyalty to King Bhumipol Adulayadej. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail. He died in prison in May 2012.

Calls to reform the lese-majeste laws have failed to gain support from established political parties.