Thailand asks New Zealand to extradite lese majeste suspect

Bangkok has formally asked New Zealand to extradite a Thai wanted under the kingdom's controversial royal defamation law, prosecutors said Tuesday. Ekapop Luara is believed to have fled to New Zealand after Thailand's generals seized power in May 2014. He was one of dozens of public critics of the military who failed to report for "attitude adjustment" in the days after the coup. He face charges under the lese majeste law, one of the world's strictest. The junta has vowed to get him back while Wellington has remained tight-lipped on the issue. Thailand's Office of the Attorney General released a statement Tuesday saying an extradition request had now been formally sent. "Police have confirmed he is living in New Zealand," the statement said. Under Section 112 of Thailand's criminal code anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count. Lese majeste prosecutions have surged since former army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha seized power. Recent cases include a 58-year-old man sentenced to 25 years in prison for the content of five Facebook posts, a bookseller jailed for an alleged offence back in 2006 and a mentally ill 65-year-old woman jailed last month for allegedly insulting a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Critics of the law say it is used as a weapon against political enemies of the royalist elite and their military allies. Prayut has vowed to pursue people living abroad who have been charged with lese majeste -- mostly critics of his regime. But it is unlikely many western nations would agree to return a suspect given most countries do not have equivalent laws and would regard the offence as a free speech issue. The extradition request comes a day after the junta banned a journalists' association from holding a debate on the lese majeste law. The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand said police had informed them that soldiers would blockade the building housing the club if the event went ahead. When asked on Tuesday why the junta had banned the debate, Prayut suggested any discussion of the law was both unpatriotic and unacceptable. "Do you think it's appropriate? As Thai people do you think it's appropriate or not?" he told reporters. "If you think it's not appropriate you shouldn't ask this question. If you think it's appropriate you are not Thai."