U.N. urges Thailand to amend tough law on insulting royalty

Well-wishers hold up pictures of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, May 10, 2015. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

By Stephanie Nebehay GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations on Tuesday denounced "shockingly" long prison terms imposed by Thailand for insulting the monarchy and urged authorities to amend the law and release those convicted. Thai military courts on Friday jailed two people for insulting the monarchy, one for 30 years and the other for 28, the heaviest sentences for the crime in Thai history, lawyers and a legal monitoring group said. Pongsak Sriboonpeng was initially given a sentence of 60 years for six Facebook posts between 2013 and 2014 but this was reduced due to his guilty plea. Sasivimol Patomwongfa-ngarm saw her 56-year term halved for pleading guilty to seven Facebook posts insulting the royals, the U.N. said. "These are the heaviest sentences we have recorded since 2006, when we began documenting cases of individuals prosecuted for lèse-majesté offences for exercising the right to freedom of expression," U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told a news briefing. The military courts "fail to meet international human rights standards, including the right to a fair trial," she said. Trials generally were closed with "very little scrutiny". The punishments come at a time of heightened anxiety over the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch. There has been a sharp rise in prosecutions for alleged royal insults, with more than 40 cases recorded since the military took power in a coup in May 2014, Shamdasani said. "In most of the cases they are denied bail. So they are held for a prolonged period, certainly a lot of pressure is applied on them to make their guilty pleas," she added. "Then they plead guilty, and that leads to them not being eligible for appeal. If you make a guilty plea and you are convicted and sentenced, you cannot then appeal your case. "The only option is a pardon by the king. So in fact we are calling for this, we are calling for them to be pardoned, and for people who have been detained for the exercise of their freedom of expression to be released unconditionally." The government should amend the "vague and broad lèse-majesté law to bring it in line with international human rights standards", she said. (Editing by Andrew Roche)