Last week I visited Somyot in prison in Bangkok. On the 25th of January 2013, he was sentenced to ten years in jail for publishing a magazine that contained two fictional short stories that the court deemed to be critical of the King. No names were used in these stories and historians gave evidence at Somyot’s trial to say the stories could certainly be read as referring to any number of feudal regimes. Somyot, prior to sentencing last week, had already spent two years in jail after being repeatedly denied bail.
His trial, for offences against the printing act and lèse majesté (violating majesty, an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign) took almost two years and heard a wide range of evidence, much in defence of Somyot, including the historians mentioned above and the Human Rights Commission, but about a month before ruling the judicial team was changed without reason being given. On the basis of the new team’s review of the evidence they ruled out the offences against the printing act, which specifically excludes editors from responsibility for articles with other authors, but upheld the offences against lèse majesté. On these grounds they sentenced Somyot to ten years plus one for a previous conviction for defamation against an army general, when Somyot wrote an article that suggested the military may benefit from the military coup.
His supporters believe his sentence is an attempt to stop him organising. It is payback for openly criticising the military, and also calling for the removal of section 112 of the Criminal Code – lèse majesté. These ulterior motives seem to be borne out by the irregularities in the process: at arrest, refusal of bail, the changing of judiciary, and charging of lèse majesté while disproving the charge against the printing act. None of his family, supporters or Somyot himself expected this verdict and he and everyone else is shaken and in shock.
Knowing Somyot’s history as a trade union and pro-democracy activist and his principled refusal to plead guilty to these charges, I expected him to be of the macho, stoic activist mould. I was very surprised, heartened and also worried to find instead a very soft man. Somyot is not in the best health, and he has a teenage daughter and a university aged son and wife whom he loves very much. He’s also an intellectual who has already survived two years of only being allowed to read religious books.
He is a principled man, a man committed to improving the lives of the poor and sees democracy as a pathway for achieving that. This doesn’t make him a hero of the herculean model, this just makes him a good man who has already tested his ideals at great consequence. It seems though that some things are just too much to ask, mentally and spiritually.
In our meeting Somyot said he thought he would die in prison if he couldn’t get bail. I suspect the thing that has shaken him the most is discovering he can’t rely on the justice system. He knows that the chances of winning on appeal are now very slim, considering the irregularities in process and law you would have to think he’s right. Further, based on precedent it could well take ten years to take his case through the appeal process. This makes for a very grim picture for Somyot and the Thai pro-democracy activists, and all those who care about freedom of speech.
The only bright light seems to be the growing international and national criticism of this ruling and the use of lèse majesté. I am writing to Minister McCully to ask for New Zealand’s voice to be added to the support for Somyot and the call for his release on bail.
Without the ability to politically organise and criticise, a democracy cannot truly function. We need to support people of principle in this world, especially when they reach the limit of their endurance.