Six Thais acquitted after being accused of torching king portraits

BANGKOK: Six young Thais accused of setting portraits of the royal family on fire have been granted rare acquittals, their lawyer said on Thursday (Sep 20), escaping strict royal defamation charges that can carry 15 years in jail.

Thailand has some of the harshest royal insult legislation in the world and has policed aggressively any perceived slight to the ultra-rich family, whose portraits are plastered across billboards around the kingdom.

The six young Thais were acquitted of vandalising portraits of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his(Photo:AFP)

The law, known as 112, carries a maximum sentence of 15 years per count and trials are often shrouded in secrecy behind closed doors.

But the six Thais were acquitted on appeal earlier this week after being arrested in 2017 for allegedly vandalising ceremonial arches bearing pictures of the current and former king in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen. They said they had been hired to do the job.

Initially convicted in January, they still face jail terms of three to nine years for criminal association charges and burning the property of others, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

The court ruling on the royal insult charge said the defendants’ actions were aimed at causing damage to the arches only, the rights group said.

While lese majeste cases shot up under the ruling junta that seized power in Thailand in 2014, convictions have declined in recent months, suggesting a change in attitude towards the strict defamation law.

"The prosecution of 112 cases has been very low this year, to the point that it’s nearly non-existent," Pawinee Chumsri, a lawyer for the rights group that represented the defendants, told AFP.

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She added that that verdicts now trend towards acquittals or charges that carry lesser jail time.

"It’s somewhat good progress to see 112 cases are not easily prosecuted," she said.

Yingcheep Atchanont, from the legal monitoring group iLaw, said there have been four acquittals this year and no new cases.

Analysts say the law could be wielded differently under the new reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who took the throne in 2016 after the death of his much-beloved father Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Sulak Sivaraksa, an elderly historian who faced the charge after questioning accounts of an ancient elephant battle involving monarchs, said it was the new king’s "grace" that led to prosecutors declining to pursue the case further.

But many are still serving time or in self-exile after being accused of the offence.

In August 2017 a prominent student activist was jailed for two and a half years for sharing a BBC Thai-language profile of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Facebook.

The media in Thailand is also forced to self-censor when reporting on the subject and in many cases cannot repeat the content of the offence.