American sentenced to prison for Thai royal insult

December 7, 2011 - 10:55 PM

BANGKOK (AP) — A court in Thailand has sentenced a U.S. citizen to two and a half years in prison for defaming the country's royal family.

Thai-born American Joe Gordon was accused of translating excerpts of a locally banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and posting them online.

A Bangkok criminal court issued the verdict Thursday as Gordon stood wearing an orange prison uniform with his legs shackled.

The verdict indicated Gordon was to be sentenced to five years behind bars, but the judge halved the punishment because he pleaded guilty in October.

The 55-year-old has been detained since May.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BANGKOK (AP) — A court in Thailand is to issue a verdict Thursday in the case of an American citizen charged with defaming the royal family, a grave crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail.

Thai-born American Joe Gordon is accused of translating excerpts of a locally banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and posting them online.

He committed the alleged crime years ago while living in the U.S. state of Colorado, raising questions about the applicability of Thai law to acts committed by foreigners outside Thailand.

Gordon was detained in late May during a visit to Thailand, and after being repeatedly denied bail, he pleaded guilty in October in hopes of obtaining a lenient sentence.

Thailand's so-called 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 country has come under increasing pressure both at home and abroad to amend the laws, which critics say are too harsh and have often been used for political harassment.

Many had hoped that the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which has some prominent supporters who have been accused of lese majeste, would reform the laws. The issue remains highly sensitive, however, and Yingluck's government has been as aggressive in pursing the cases as its predecessors.

Earlier this week, the United States said it was troubled by recent lese majeste rulings it said were an affront to freedom of expression in Thailand. And last weekend, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged authorities to amend the laws, saying the penalties being meted out were "shocking."

The last person sentenced for lese majeste in Thailand was 61-year-old Amphon Tangnoppakul. He was convicted of sending four text messages to a secretary of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and sentenced last month to 20 years in jail.

Last month, Information Minister Anudith Nakornthap said Facebook users who "share" or "like" content that insults the Thai monarchy are committing a crime. Anudith said Thai authorities have asked Facebook to remove 86,000 pages between August and November because of alleged lese majeste content.

Gordon, 55, a former car salesman, is accused of having translated excerpts from the unauthorized biography "The King Never Smiles," published by Yale University Press, into the Thai language and publishing them in a blog. He also provided links to the translation to other two Web forums, prosecutors say.

In the banned book, author Paul M. Handley retraces the king's life, alleging that he has been a major stumbling block to the progress of democracy in Thailand as he consolidated royal power over his long reign.

Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning monarch, is profoundly revered in Thailand and is widely seen as a stabilizing force. He was feted Monday on his 84th birthday, during which he called on his countrymen to unite in response to the worst floods in more than half a century.

The king is frail and has stayed at a Bangkok hospital for more than two years.