Thailand arrests American for alleged king insult

May 27, 2011 - 6:58 AM

BANGKOK (AP) — Thai authorities said Friday they arrested an American citizen on charges he insulted the country's monarchy by posting a link on his blog four years ago to a banned book about the Southeast Asian nation's ailing king.

The 54-year-old man has denied the charges, which also include inciting public unrest and violating Thailand's Computer Crimes Act, according to the Thai-language prachatai.com news website, which tracks cases of lese majeste, as the crime of insulting the monarch is known.

The Thai-born man lived in the U.S. state of Colorado for around 30 years before returning recently to Thailand for medical treatment, the website said.

Walter M. Braunohler, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Bangkok , identified the man as Joe Gordon. A court official, who declined to be named because she is not authorized to speak to the media, gave the man's Thai name as Lerpong Wichaikhammat.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy but has severe lese majeste laws that mandate a jail term of three to 15 years for any person who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the Regent."

Critics say the lese majeste laws — used with alarming frequency over the last several years — are often a weapon of political harassment and calls have grown recently to amend or abolish them.

Thai-based media routinely self censor coverage of the royal family, but the Internet has tested the taboo. Thai authorities have responded by trying to block thousands of websites considered subversive, arguing that defending the monarchy is a priority.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's equivalent of the FBI, said the American was arrested Thursday in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima. Speaking on customary condition of anonymity, she said he was being held in a Bangkok prison after a Thai court denied his request for bail.

The American had posted a link on his blog in 2007 to "The King Never Smiles," an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej that is banned in Thailand, the DSI official said.

Praachatai.com said police arrested the man at his home and seized a computer and cell phone.

Braunohler said a U.S. consular officer visited the American on Friday morning.

He declined comment further, saying only that officials were following the case "very closely."

"We're still looking into what the exact charges are," Braunohler told The Associated Press.

Sensitivity over criticism of the monarchy has increased in recent years as the poor health of the country's 83-year-old king has elevated concern about a smooth succession. At the same time, sharp partisan political battles in the wake of a 2006 military coup have unleashed unprecedented questioning of established institutions, including the palace.

Thailand's freedom of speech reputation has taken a battering in recent years, as successive governments have tried to suppress political opposition. Its standing in the Press Freedom Index issued by the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders slid to 153 last year from 65 in 2002, when the ratings were initiated.

In March, a Thai court sentenced Thanthawut Taweewarodomkul — the operator of an anti-government website — to 13 years on charges of defaming the monarchy and three more years for violating the Computer Crime Act.

The 38-year-old ran a website affiliated with the anti-government Red Shirt movement whose aggressive street protests last year deteriorated into violence and were quashed by the army.

The 2007 Computer Crime Act addresses hacking and other traditional online offenses, but also bars the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security or that causes panic. It carries a penalty of up to five years' imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 baht ($3,285).