A court in Thailand sentenced a U.S. citizen to two and a half years in prison today for defaming the country’s royal family by translating excerpts of a locally banned biography of the king and posting them online.
The verdict is the latest so-called punishment handed down in the Southeast Asian kingdom, which has come under increasing pressure at home and abroad to reform harsh legislation that critics say is an affront to freedom of expression.
The 55-year-old Thai-born American, Joe Gordon, stood calmly with his ankles shackled in an orange prison uniform as the sentence was read out at a Bangkok criminal court.
Judge Tawan Rodcharoen said the punishment, initially set at five years, was reduced because Gordon pleaded guilty in October.
The sentence was relatively light compared to other recent cases. In November, 61-year-old Amphon Tangnoppakul was sentenced to 20 years in jail for sending four text messages deemed offensive to the crown.
Gordon posted links to the banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej several years ago while living in the U.S. state of Colorado, and his case has raised questions about the applicability of Thai law to acts committed by foreigners outside Thailand.
Speaking after the verdict, Gordon said, “I am an American citizen, and what happened was in America.”
He also said he had no expectation of being let off easy. “This is just the system in Thailand,” he said. Speaking later in Thai, he added: “In Thailand, they put people in prison even if they don’t have proof.”
Gordon had lived in the U.S. for about 30 years. He was detained in late May during a visit to his native country to seek treatment for arthritis and high blood pressure. After being repeatedly denied bail, he pleaded guilty in October in hopes of obtaining a lenient sentence.
Thailand’s lese majeste laws are the harshest in the world. They mandate that people found guilty of defaming the monarchy — including the king, the queen and the heir to the throne — face three to 15 years behind bars. The nation’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act also contains provisions that have enabled prosecutors to increase lese majeste sentences.
The U.S. Embassy’s consul general, Elizabeth Pratt, told reporters in Bangkok after the ruling that Washington considered Gordon’s punishment “severe because he has been sentenced for his right to freedom of expression.”
Opponents of the laws say that while the royal family should be protected from defamation, lese majeste laws have often been abused to punish political rivals. That is especially true since the nation suffered a 2006 military coup.